Firestorm of 2007:
“... It Was The Worst Of Times...”
By Gerry Ashley
San Diego, CA - As I write this on October 27th, 2007, Southern California is still on fire. There are still 11 large fires, not contained, that have burned 628,635 acres in southern California, much of it in San Diego County. Overall, more than 1500 homes have been destroyed and over 1 million people have been evacuated. The loss of property is estimated at well over $1 billion. And the firestorm isn't done yet. A history buff friend of mine who has, thus far, escaped the fires just north of Los Angeles compared this apocalyptic event with the Luftwaffe firestorms over London in 1940.
The city of San Diego, the owners of Qualcomm Stadium (home to the San Diego Chargers NFL franchise) converted the property to a public shelter (as did owners of numerous other facilities in San Diego county). When the availability of the stadium was announced, people all over the country thought back to Hurricane Katrina and the debacle that faced evacuees who found the Superdome to be a fate nearly as bad as facing the storm. But unlike New Orleans, San Diegans united and worked together. It should be noted that a direct comparison is unfair as the circumstances surrounding both include notable differences. But what we should all come away with from this experience is that in emergencies, we CAN unite and, when we do, it makes all the difference in the world to the victims. In this case, it wasn't the government, but the people themselves that made the biggest and most immediate impact. Whether it was working through the Red Cross or as individuals, donations of food, clothing, blankets and other necessities came fast and furious until state and federal officials were on scene to start the recovery process for thousands of evacuees.
Mark Shaffer and Bandit live in an area that was not evacuated. As a Realtor with Prudential CA Realty, Mark understood the extent of the loss the to the area in terms of property. More important, however, as a caring individual, he tried to comprehend the immeasurable horror and anguish of those forced to leave their homes on short notice, many of them to have their lives irrevocably changed in the blink of an eye.
Speaking to Shaffer by phone early on in the tragedy, I asked, “Can you imagine what these people are going through? Mark understood the question was meant to be rhetorical, but answered anyway. “No. For anyone who is not being evacuated to say, 'I understand how they feel' would be disingenuous. There's no way you can possibly 'know' how these people feel unless you are one of them. The rest of us can only imagine how terrible it must be. Worse, there's nothing you can do to prepare yourself emotionally. But we're all aware that we could get the call to evacuate next.”
Shaffer paused for a moment, then replied. “You know I just realized I was speaking of the adults. It has to be completely incomprehensible to the children. Listen, I have to go. I can't just sit here. I've got to do something.” And, just like that, our conversation was over.
That “something” he had to do turned out to be Mark and Bandit joining other volunteers at Qualcomm stadium. “I couldn't imagine what it must be like for a small child to suddenly be ripped away from the sanctuary of their home. And it would be easy for it to be traumatizing for them when they get here. So I thought Bandit could entertain these kids for awhile and maybe take their minds off what they were going through.”
A “little while” turned out to be more than 20 hours over the next three days until the Stadium shut down as a shelter.
Shaffer, a busy real estate agent for Prudential CA Realty, decided to take some time off. “I thought taking Bandit down to entertain the kids and other evacuees would help them as they adjust, and maybe give the parents an opportunity to relax a bit as well.”
The sight of Bandit, riding his custom-sized Harley around the stadium was like a magnet for the children. Later, Shaffer would recall: “Actually, we spent most of the time posing for photos with the kids. At one point, there was a long line of children and their parents just waiting to have their picture taken with Bandit. I felt so good that bringing Bandit helped bring them some enjoyment at a time like this.”
Shaffer's generous gesture didn't go unnoticed by the media. All of the major news networks had their top reporters on-site to report. On Tuesday evening, Mark met Geraldo Rivera who, along with other network reporters, had set up shop in the stadium to report on the fire. But Shaffer wasn't really interested in doing any interviews. Shaffer told several reporters, “I didn't come here to get on the news. The story here is the evacuees and what they are dealing with.”
The following morning brought more nationally known members of media. Al Roker from the Today Show walked up to Mark requesting a photo be taken with Bandit. Katie Couric from CBS was there as well. A producer for FOX news approached Mark requesting a live interview. Again, Shaffer again thought about declining the invitation for the same reason he had given others. But the FOX producer explained, “We're doing stories on the evacuees, but this particular story is about volunteers like yourself who have gone out of your way to assist those in need. We're hoping that by publicizing what people like you are doing, it will make others step up and volunteer as well.”
With that perspective in mind, Mark agreed and was interviewed live by Fox News anchorman Shepard Smith. Later in the day, Mark received a call from CNN requesting a similar interview. Mark agreed, again hoping it would inspire others to get involved. He and Bandit did interviews for CNN as well as several local news providers. At one point, Mark commented, “There's literally hundreds of people donating their time. Bandit and I are just part of a bigger movement of volunteers. This is the kind of thing that makes me proud to be a San Diegan.” Indeed, all of San Diego should be proud of the volunteers like Mark and Bandit who stepped up to the plate in their neighbor's time of need. It truly did make all the difference to so many. As the fires continue to burn, we hope San Diegans will keep supporting their neighbors. If you live far from the areas of the fires, but still would like to help. Please contact your local Red Cross chapter.
Postscript: It should probably be noted that the author of this article (as with all the articles on this web site) sits some 2,500 miles away from San Diego. As a former resident of San Diego, absent for over 6 years, I recall traversing the lush hills and canyons with manicured neighborhoods; hilltops with vistas normally seen only on post cards. Much of it now lies in ashes. It will be generations before the areas burned will be as I remembered.
When I first suggested the article to Mark, it was met with resistance, typical of his modesty. I had to convince him that the significance of the story is important enough that the public beyond San Diego be made aware. It wasn't until he noticed that the story was being carried on web sites as far away as Australia and China that he agreed to post this on Bandit's web site. I thought you should know this: The last thing Mark wanted is for his actions to be seen as intended to garner publicity for Bandit and himself. It was a genuinely selfless gesture, as with so many other big-hearted San Diegans who came together to take “The Worst Of Times” and make the best of them.
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