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Spare fare is fine by them

Times Staff Writer

They weren’t handing out energy drinks, offering massages or directing evacuees to self-help classes Thursday at the National Orange Show Fairgrounds in San Bernardino.

This wasn’t San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium -- the Ritz of evacuation centers -- this was its Spartan cousin, a place packed with tough mountain people not always comfortable in the flatlands.

Not that they were complaining -- much.

“It’s too freakin’ noisy, too many kids, but what can you do? They have a lot of energy,” said 54-year-old Joe Cote, a refugee from Green Valley Lake, a mountain community where dozens of homes have burned to the ground.

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“The food isn’t the greatest, but it’s wholesome.”

On Wednesday night more than 1,800 people slept in the two enormous, aircraft hangar-like buildings.

Row upon row of cots filled the vast rooms. Lines snaked toward the hot food stalls. Tables were set up by medical personnel checking for asthma, head lice and other conditions.

A fenced-in area became a makeshift day-care center for the hundreds of children.

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Once inside, they played with balls, balloons and watched repeated showings of “Happy Feet.”

Christine Brubaker, 36, finds her solace at the kennel.

She visits it six times a day to see Lenii, her calico cat now living in a cage among dogs, birds and a Rhode Island Red rooster.

Brubaker is in rough shape. She has no teeth, uses a wheelchair and suffers from fibromyalgia and Crohn’s Disease.

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And the Crestline resident is, like everyone else here, temporarily homeless. Her cat makes it bearable.

“When I get really stressed the cat calms me down,” she said, stroking Lenii.

It doesn’t offer the executive suites and attendants of Qualcomm, but the Orange Show, actually the county fairgrounds, had its own ways of soothing jangled nerves.

Neil and Darlene Peterson of the Gideon International Society couldn’t keep free copies of the New Testaments in stock.

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The Spanish-language editions went first.

Up against a fence, a guitar Mass was led by Msgr. Gerry Lopez of the San Bernardino County Roman Catholic Diocese.

Mass is celebrated twice a day and attracts large crowds.

“We need to reassure people of God’s place in this tragedy,” Lopez said.

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Many evacuees were Spanish-speaking immigrants.

One Guatemalan builder, Edin Orlando, 30, sat alone on a cot working on a child’s coloring book.

“It’s not so bad,” he said, slightly embarrassed at being spotted coloring. “I don’t know if my home is safe.”

There was plenty of activity all day. Representatives from insurance companies, county government, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, law and fire officials were offering information.

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Fire officials said Thursday that people would be here at least through the weekend and possibly longer. Downed power lines, gas leaks and water problems have complicated their return to the mountains, San Bernardino County Supervisor Dennis Hansberger said.

A list of homes that were lost is expected to be released today. “I think my home is all right, but I’m not sure,” said Kristina Mayes of Running Springs. “These evacuations have become like a way of life, but I love the mountains.”

--

david.kelly@latimes.com

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