San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium filled up with 20,000 evacuees and volunteers. If the Superdome in New Orleans after Katrina was like a ring in Dante's hell, Qualcomm has been like a street fair -- with bountiful food, and even massages, acupuncture and yoga on offer. California had the advantage of learning from Katrina, as did federal officials who -- desperate to avoid the mistakes of the past -- worked to act fast, cut through bureaucracy and coordinate closely with the Red Cross.
Nothing is ever perfect. Critics complain that officials were slow to get fire-fighting helicopters and planes into the air, although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger maintains that it was the high winds that kept them on the ground. Even as the state set aside $850 million this year for fire-fighting, it hasn't funded all the initiatives recommended by a commission after 2003. Whatever its failings, California's government isn't as addled with corruption and incompetence as Louisiana's, and that has made the difference.
Ideally, government shouldn't be big, but it should be energetic, and those (few) things it does, it should do well. Emergency response is one of them. California's response to the wildfires has been a case of "your tax dollars at work" -- a phrase that, in this instance, needn't carry its usual note of bitter irony.