Undated (AP) _ An estimated 3,500 people missed their chance to see Pope John Paul II because their chartered buses had been committed to firefighting efforts in Northern California.

In at least two dozen Central Valley parishes from Sacramento to Visalia, they waited before sunrise Thursday for the buses to transport them to the Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey, site of the papal mass.

The buses didn't show up.

''We had a breakdown in communications,'' said Dean Cassese, president of All-Cal Tours, the charter bus company. He said his office attempted to call the churches late Wednesday evening, but that the calls went unanswered. ''Most of the churches aren't going to answer their phones late at night,'' he said.

Father Carl Steinhauer, director of the Office of Worship for the Sacramento Diocese, estimated that at least 1,100 people, and perhaps as many as 1,500, were stranded in Sacramento, while church officials in Stockton, Fresno, Visalia, Hanford and other nearby areas said a total of more than 2,000 people were without buses.

The Rev. Robert J. Pereira, special assistant for administrative affairs for the Stockton Diocese, said 1,000 people from 13 parishes were stranded there.

''There was no notification sent to me or the parishes indicating this was a problem, and no time was allowed, therefore to get these people to make other arrangements through, say, carpooling,'' Pereira said. ''This is inexcusable.''

Pereira said that ''there's a spiritual value here that cannot be measured in terms of money - the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people to see the Holy Father,'' he added. ''This opportunity is lost, really, forever.''