Residents Who Refused To Evacuate Complicate Firefighting In California

Aug 19, 2016
Originally published on August 19, 2016 6:33 pm
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Firefighters are gaining ground on a destructive wildfire in Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains. The Blue Cut fire is more than a quarter contained now, and that means some residents can return home. More than 80,000 people were put under mandatory evacuation notice in the fire's first explosive days. But as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, many of those people never left.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: On the third day of the fire, with his work done, Ken Woods waited and watched as helicopters dropped water on a wall of flames that worked their way down a hillside opposite his home.

KEN WOODS: Done everything I can think of, right down to - that wheelbarrow's got a wool blanket in it full of water.

ROTT: Wool being resistant to flames.

Are you feeling good about the way things stand or...

WOODS: Yeah, I feel better now, but 30 minutes ago I wanted to cry. You know, the flames were near my neighbors' houses right at the bottom.

ROTT: Woods lives up Lytle Creek, on the south end of the Blue Cut fire, an area that's been under mandatory evacuation orders since the first day of the fire. On that first day, he says, he and his wife packed valuables into their cars and prepared to leave their home of 30 years.

WOODS: I told her I'd be right behind her. And, you know...

ROTT: He wasn't.

WOODS: I think I'm on the [expletive] list.

ROTT: Woods told me he just couldn't leave his home. He couldn't look himself in the mirror if it burned, knowing that there might have been something that he could have done. And he's not alone.

BOB POOLE: Fifty percent of the people are not evacuating.

ROTT: This is Bob Poole with the San Bernardino National Forest.

POOLE: We can't do much about it but tell them that it's in their best interest to leave.

ROTT: It's the same for law enforcement. Jodi Miller is with the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

JODI MILLER: They're adults. They make the decision that they choose not to evacuate. We cannot force them to.

ROTT: And that can be a huge problem for a number of reasons. Poole says that people that say they don't want to leave often change their minds when the flames reach their yard.

POOLE: That's too late. We're trying to get in to save their home where they're trying to leave. Roads are blocked. We can't get there. We can't defend their home.

ROTT: And Poole says firefighters want to, despite whatever stern warnings they may have given homeowners earlier.

POOLE: We always like to say, oh, no, if they didn't leave, we're just going to leave them. Well, we don't do that. We can't do that. That's not what we're brought up to be. That's not what we're trained to do.

ROTT: As a result, firefighters put themselves in dangerous situations that they may have otherwise avoided. I asked both Poole and Miller if they think that part of the reason people aren't leaving is because they're so used to wildfires. Almost every homeowner you talk to here and in Southern California can remember the last big wildfire or the last time they were told to evacuate. Both emergency responders said that definitely factors in. So I asked if it might have been an overreach to evacuate some 30,000 homes and 80,000 people in the fire's first day.

POOLE: The only thing I can tell you is, you know, we take evacuation seriously. And it's only done for one reason, and that's to protect human life.

ROTT: We now know that around 100 homes have been lost in the fire, and that number could go up as firefighters are able to reach some of the more remote, rural parts of it. As for Ken Woods, the homeowner we heard at the top of the piece, well, he left me a voicemail the next day.

WOODS: Hey, Nathan. It's Ken Woods. You missed the show last night. Damn thing burned like hell from here all the way up the canyon. And believe it or not, we made it all. Just wanted to let you know everyone made it. It was a hell of a show. Bye.

ROTT: Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.