Underneath a jagged cardboard sign reading "Camp Silverado," a grocery-store parking lot in Orange has been transformed into a makeshift evacuation camp for hundreds of canyon residents forced to flee their homes nearly a week ago by the Santiago fire.
As they wait to learn if their homes are among the 16 destroyed by the blaze, the weary evacuees get hot meals, donated clothing and regular updates from fire officials.
"This is where we get information about what's going on," said Pam Lau, who sleeps at friends' homes but spends up to 12 hours a day at Camp Silverado awaiting word on the fate of her house in Williams Canyon. "This is where all our neighbors are."
It started Monday as the first evacuees of the Santiago wildfire were ordered to leave their homes.
After Ray Verdugo fled his Silverado Canyon home, he stopped at the Albertsons Center in Orange where he and his neighbors typically shop.
"I was entertaining a couple of kids," said Verdugo, 55, "and I put up a sign."
Scrawled in red spray paint, the sign reads "Camp Silverado. Mayor: Ray Verdugo. Council Members: The Boys."
A week later, Verdugo and about 60 other fire evacuees sleep there in motor homes, tents and campers on the asphalt lot. Other times, he can be seen barking orders through a bullhorn.
As word spread of the makeshift encampment, authorities and volunteers began pitching in. Bulletin boards display maps, fire updates and personal messages. Firefighters pick up residents in the parking lot and shuttle them to quickly check on their homes' condition and pick up prescription medicines, clothing and other essentials.
A donation drop-off point now sports shopping carts full of clothes. Children passed out homemade Halloween cupcakes, and local businesses such as Outback Steak House served free chicken sandwiches, burgers and salads.
One volunteer set up an animal shelter to provide temporary housing for critters displaced by the 27,521-acre fire.
"It's pretty hard to take your iguana, 15 rabbits, 10 chickens and potbelly pig to Motel 6," said Sherry Meddick of Silverado Canyon. "They might not leave the light on."
On Saturday afternoon, she watched seven barking dogs in cages and about the same number of fish flopping in a pan. Besides the dogs and fish, Meddick has spent much of the week caring for chickens, rabbits, cats and an iguana.
"Keeping the animals keeps my mind off the situation," said Meddick, who does not know the fate of her house. "It's my way of avoiding. I'm feeling optimistic, but I'm dead tired and pretty stressed out."
Elsewhere, teenage boys skateboarded and played hacky sack while their parents talked on cellphones to share news.
"Our house is still standing," said Modjeska Canyon resident JeniferTalbott, who had just returned from a shuttle trip. "But our trees are all gone. I'm absolutely despondent. I cried all the way back here, but now I'm OK."
Ken Sheller and his wife, Deborah, are staying with their daughter in Fountain Valley but visited Camp Silverado.
"I'm feeling a little uptight," Deborah said, "but I really feel safe with all the help and support that we're getting here. It's like a great big family; you get in trouble and everybody helps you out, even if they don't like you."
Added Ken: "We came here to see what's going on, get some support and see how our neighbors are doing."
Many were trying to remain positive in the face of the unknown.
"I got a chocolate chip cookie and a brownie and I'm feeling great," said Sherri Malvin, waiting in line for the shuttle. "I made a list of what we need from the house: keys, cellphone charger and Paul's underwear."