Chargers to play in Qualcomm on Sunday

SAN DIEGO -- As the final fire refugees boarded buses for the short ride to a Red Cross shelter early Friday morning, a small army of workers hustled to restore a sense of normalcy to Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers.

For much of this week, Qualcomm was temporary home to as many as 13,000 people displaced by wildfires in San Diego County.

Fewer than a thousand remained Friday morning, when the Chargers and the NFL announced that Sunday's game with the Houston Texans would be played as scheduled starting at 1 p.m.

"I think everyone feels very good about being able to play the game," Chargers owner Dean Spanos said in a statement posted on the team's website. "The mayor, top city officials and I think just about everyone really wants to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. Obviously the players and the organization want to get back to normal as quickly as possible.

"San Diego has gone through a terrible tragedy this past week. To get to this point, it really shows how resilient the people, the fans, our organization and everybody in San Diego are following this disaster."

By mid-morning, the grounds crew was already at work striping the field and painting the end zones.

Nearly four dozen Chargers players, coaches and staff members -- including General Manager A.J. Smith, Coach Norv Turner and star running back LaDainian Tomlinson -- were among those forced to evacuate their homes from the wildfires, which killed at least seven and blackened more than 350,000 acres in San Diego County.

Most of the team's employees fled to Tempe, Ariz., where the Chargers practiced from Wednesday through Friday.

"This was a day-by-day thing," Spanos said. "We needed to wait and see if the city thought enough public safety personnel would be available without impacting the wildfire recovery efforts. We also felt we needed to wait until the city made its decision about the future of Qualcomm Stadium as an evacuation center."

With so many left homeless by the blazes, some emotions are raw, making the game a political football neither side seemed eager to carry.

For example, when Mayor Jerry Sanders announced late Thursday the stadium would be available he was careful to say the decision to play would be left to the Chargers. It wasn't until Friday morning that the Chargers released a statement from Sanders in which the mayor said, "The NFL has decided to play Sunday's game as scheduled."

"If everybody's happy about it come Monday, then both sides will say it's a great decision. But if people are wondering why they're playing a football game while people's houses are still smoldering, then they'll want to blame each other for it," said Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, a campus that remains closed because of the fires.

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.