In California, an unquenchable generosity

When fire forced Jim McGinn to flee his home with his 86-year-old mother, his wife, two kids, and a menagerie of pets, a woman they met at a shelter gave them a simple order: "You're coming to live with us. You're staying as long as it takes."

The whole motley crew - a Noah's Ark including two cats, two tortoises, and even two snakes - moved into the woman's small home. A couple of days later, Mr. McGinn returned to find his house in Scripps Ranch intact, though floating embers ignited homes in front and behind.

While not every homeowner has been so fortunate, southern Californians this week have been giving and receiving something that wildfire hasn't been able to consume: open-hearted and open-doored generosity.

Blazes forming an arc from Ventura County north of Los Angeles to near the Mexican border have ravaged arid hillsides and destroyed thousands of homes, but they have also galvanized a magnanimity not always visible in this region of tranquil breezes and stately palm trees.

The Scripps Ranch development here is just one case in point. In this quintessential suburban landscape of cul-de-sacs and out-of-town transplants, citizens are realizing they share more than sunny skies and big mortgages. Everything from organic milk to dog food landed in donation bins - and served only serve to confirm residents' pledges to return and rebuild.

Vanessa Arrendondo, 11, may even get a replacement for the witch outfit she planned to wear on Halloween.

The tide of neighborly assistance across the region has come from individuals and corporations, from traditional charities and ad-hoc alliances. Among the events chronicled in local news coverage:

• The Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Fresno is collecting clothing and blankets for fire victims.

• Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant with a research lab in La Jolla, had planned to celebrate the opening of a building but instead delivered its feast for 1,300 to firefighters and evacuees.

• Among countless tales of firefighting heroics, one homeowner found two teens he didn't know hosing down flames in his backyard when he returned, exhausted, from another property.

• Animal enthusiasts rushed to the aid of back-country ranches and stables. At one rodeo ground alone, 500 horses found refuge.

• After this week's Monday Night Football game was moved from San Diego to Tempe, Ariz., fans at the game donated some $200,000 for fire relief.

• Qualcomm stadium, where the game would have been, was meanwhile an evacuation hub where these unusual words were heard: "Getcher hot dogs! Free hot dogs right here!"

Firefighting heroics

The fires even prompted a high-level naval maneuver: The aircraft carrier John C. Stennis cut a training mission short and headed back to its home port of San Diego Wednesday so crew members could rejoin families affected by the fires.

The greatest effort, and sacrifice, has clearly been made by the professionals tasked with battling the wildfires that, taken together, represent the largest conflagration in state history.

The Cedar Fire killed a firefighter on Wednesday as he defended Julian, a historic mountain mining town and tourist spot. That 234,000-acre fire has burned an area larger than New York City and Boston combined.

Meanwhile, the region-wide fire toll reached 2,600 homes and 650,000 acres as thousands of homes north and east of Los Angeles remained in danger. Twenty people had died in the blazes.

On Thursday, fog covered parts of the San Bernardino Mountains, and some light rain was reported there and on the other major fire front - in the mountains of eastern San Diego County. Cooler temperatures were also expected, but strong winds challenged firefighters.

In San Diego, volunteers spent the week flocking to help fire victims even as the nation's seventh-largest city essentially shut down under a stifling lid of smoke that covered the sky, blocked the sun, and clogged throats.

Not everything went smoothly in the relief effort. Some evacuation centers had to be evacuated themselves as the wildfires drew closer. And the local Red Cross chapter, still recovering from a massive scandal over the allocation of relief donations, reportedly wrangled with the national office over its efforts to earmark contributions for fire victims.

Despite the challenges, generosity from both friends and strangers won over displaced persons like Jim Immel, whose motor home was destroyed by a brush fire in the rural farm community of Valley Center. He found his buddies had changed their tune from "Whaddya mean you need five bucks?" to "What do you need, dude?"

A community bands together

Back in Scripps Ranch, Don Robinson is standing in the blackened rubble of his home. He is lauding the generosity of his neighbors when flames suddenly shoot from a smoldering fence in his backyard.

"You got a bucket?" yells the molecular researcher to two men across the street, who come running and start scooping water from Mr. Robinson's intact hot tub. Scott Johnson, a grief counselor who lives a couple blocks away, pulls his car to the curb and offers to help, but a brigade of plastic toy buckets ends the drama.

"We knew this was a good community and it had good schools and good people," says bushy-bearded Stephen Rosen as his family and friends picked through the burned-out shell of his four-bedroom home. "But we never knew it was a community with this kind of support."

A single TV station has raised $1.3 million for fire relief. The American Red Cross, meanwhile, was so overwhelmed that it turned away volunteers and gifts of anything other than money.

"It's just really gratifying to see everyone come together," says a Red Cross volunteer named Valerie. "The fire is not in control yet. It's devastating. But everybody's doing what they need to do. It's just hopeful."

Janet Saidi contributed from Escondido, and AP material was used.

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