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In 2007, Qualcomm Stadium Became A Refuge For 15,000 Wildfire Evacuees

A young boy sits on a cot set up in Qualcomm Stadium during the October 2007 ...

Credit: City of San Diego

Above: A young boy sits on a cot set up in Qualcomm Stadium during the October 2007 wildfires.

San Diego's 2007 wildfires prompted the largest evacuation in the region's history. Half a million people were ordered to leave their homes because of the fires, and thousands took shelter at Qualcomm Stadium.

The stadium, since renamed SDCCU Stadium, was a natural fit because of its central location and expansive size. City officials estimate about 10,000 people were sheltered inside the stadium at the peak of the evacuations. Another 5,000 stayed in their cars in the stadium's parking lot.

Mike McSweeney, general manager of the stadium, said some of the busiest areas during the evacuations were the lounges on the stadium's club level. The lounges were the only places in the stadium with climate control, making them a logical place to house evacuees from nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

"It really became kind of almost like a full-time hospital if you would," he said. "It had its own medications, doctors, nurses. EMTs were on site constantly bringing in people back and forth."

Qualcomm Stadium had been designated a "mega shelter," meaning it could shelter a large number of evacuees on a short-term basis. The goal was to quickly move the evacuees to other shelters in the area. The designation is still in effect.

McSweeney, then the stadium's deputy manager, said he received a call around 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21 to report to the stadium and begin welcoming evacuees. Shortly thereafter, he recalled, the first 12 people arrived through the stadium's main gate.

"They were as bewildered as everybody else," he said. "It's like, what do we do? How are we going to go about doing this? So we started to open up some concession stands to make coffee."

The San Diego Police Department soon arrived and took over management of the situation. Over the following days, the stadium was inundated with volunteers and donations of food and water.

"We had so much bread that people had donated, it was literally this huge pyramid that kept getting bigger and bigger, and people just started referring to it as 'bread mountain,'" McSweeney said.

Photo credit: City of San Diego

Evacuees and volunteers stand around a pile of donated bread at Qualcomm Stadium during the October 2007 wildfires.

Much of the food ended up going to waste. An "After Action Report" commissioned by city officials said better coordination of donations could improve the city's disaster response.

SDCCU Stadium is often mentioned in the context of the current homelessness crisis. City Councilman Chris Ward wrote a memo last month asking the mayor to consider using the stadium's parking lot as a safe parking or camping zone. The mayor established such zones this month at other locations.

Still, others want the stadium to play a bigger role in the city's response to the homelessness crisis.

"Why was it reasonable to activate (the stadium) for the victims of the 2007 wildfires, but it's not reasonable to activate it for 3,600 San Diegans who have no place to live?" asked Martha Sullivan, a progressive activist, at the Oct. 2 meeting of the San Diego City Council.

Asked what he thought the stadium's role during the wildfires said about San Diego, McSweeney said it was the volunteers and donations that made things work.

"It makes the management of that situation easier, if there is such a thing, when you have people who are willing to, want to do it and to be part of the solution," he said.

Some 15,000 people fleeing wildfires in 2007 sought shelter in Qualcomm Stadium, since renamed SDCCU Stadium. Officials say the effort was proof the city can manage massive evacuations — with the help of volunteers and donations.

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