|Wildfire evacuees gone, tailgaters return to Qualcomm Stadium|
|Written by Admin|
|Sunday, 28 October 2007 21:33|
Smoke from blazes still burning to the east stained the sky, but the rich meat-scented haze rising from hundreds of charcoal-briquet barbecues erased any lingering wildfire smell.
``Someone was probably living in this stall all week in a tent,'' said Jarred Pellegrini, 20, as he unloaded an Igloo cooler from the back of his dad's sport-utility vehicle ahead of the Chargers' 35-10 rout of the Houston Texans.
Nothing was left of those tents, which were carted away on Friday along with hundreds of cots and blankets used by more than 10,000 people who called the stadium home after fleeing their neighborhoods.
People who were still under evacuation orders or whose homes were destroyed were sent Friday to the Del Mar Fairgrounds 20 miles away after city officials decided to close relief operations at Qualcomm. About 130 remained at Del Mar on Sunday, according to Red Cross officials.
``I guess a football game is more important,'' evacuee Tami Swartz, 41, had said Friday as she made plans to return to her home in hard-hit Ramona even though at the time water had not been restored there.
But other evacuees said Sunday they welcomed any semblance of normalcy. Janis Dolan, 43, decided to leave her two sons with friends and head to the game with her husband Paul, even though they were still living in a hotel, waiting for power to be restored to their otherwise unscathed street in Poway a week after they fled.
``We needed a break, a diversion,'' said Dolan, a Chargers season-ticket holder. ``It was a battle - we still weren't sure last night when we went to bed whether we'd come.''
Regular fans also worried about the lingering smoke, including Diana Morris, who said she almost didn't make the hourlong trip to Qualcomm from her home in Orange County because she has asthma.
``We didn't know what the air quality would be like, but it's OK,'' said her husband, Dick, a retired teacher, as they shared a picnic lunch with friends outside a stadium gate.
The disaster wasn't forgotten by the team or its corporate sponsors, which arranged to have volunteers collect cash donations at each stadium entrance. Other workers wove between the elaborate tailgate parties.
Inside the stadium, state and local fire department logos were painted on the grass by both benches. ``Can't burn our spirit,'' said a sign waved by one fan.
Four San Diego firefighters led the Chargers onto the field for pregame introductions. Linebacker Shawne Merriman held up a red fireman's helmet with his left hand, then set it on the ground.
In a brief pregame ceremony, 23 firefighters, law enforcement personnel and National Guard members and their bosses lined up on the field. They received a standing ovation from the crowd of about 70,000 fans and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who later thanked firefighters, law enforcement and volunteers for their work before yelling, ``Go, Chargers, go!''
AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson contributed to this story.