We’ve all seen or experienced the “mandatory evacuations” ordered by the authorities during the FireStorms this week. Last count, there were 560,000 residents ordered to evacuate their communities since last Sunday, October 21st as reported by the San Diego Union Tribune today. There have been additional evacuations ordered just today as fires continue to burn in parts of the county as of late Thursday, the fifth day of the fires. But it has been the largest mass evacuation in recent California history. The magnitude of the mass movement of people across this county in the last few days is unprecedented.
Even sections of the coastal towns of Solana Beach and Del Mar were ordered to be evacuated. Unheard of! In fact, communities from Ramona to the coast were ordered to be de-populated this week as the Witch Creek fire roared west. And we all saw the scenes at Qualcomm Stadium as up to 12,000 people congregated out of the path of the ferocious flames. An instant community was born despite that they weren’t allowed by the Chargers to pitch tents on the greens, and despite the order to “evacuate” by noon Friday, the 26th, an order by Mayor Jerry Sanders to allow the football team to play on Sunday, one week exactly after the start of the fires. This will bring normalcy back to the community, we are told.
Many county residents have now been allowed back into their neighborhoods. The politicians and some media are calling them “re-populations”. And a general sigh of relief is starting to be heard throughout the county – except around Mt. Palomar, Julian, Lyons Valley, as indeed there are still fires going on, and there are still evacuations being ordered.
But the mass evacuations, these de-populations of the areas where the fires are or were heading – do they do any good? Or do they in fact actually contribute to the destruction?
These questions raise other issues. Does the government have the right to order people away from trying to protect their homes and properties? Law enforcement officials acknowledge that they won’t arrest anyone who refuses to evacuate or drag them away from their doorstep. Indeed, we watched news reports showing many residents of Ramona refusing to leave when ordered. (And by the way, where were they to go on that first night – last Sunday? Merely get in line in the gridlock on the way out of town?) The San Diego Union Tribune reported on Thursday, Oct. 25th, that former San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman, refused to evacuate his large spread on the outskirts of Escondido after he received the reverse 9-1-1 call. This is the former fire chief himself refusing to evacuate! In addition, we witnessed several video vignettes that showed others who saved their homes by staying and fighting.
Yet all during the initial days of the fires, all we heard from politicians, news people, fire and police officials was the constant drumbeat of ‘obey the orders for mandatory evacuations. It’s for your own good’. The primary reason, of course, given for these de-populations was for the safety of the evacuees. People should leave, as their lives are not worth their properties – which can, after all, be replaced.
In general, this sounds like sound advice. But there are risks in evacuations and there are other philosophical and moral issues. Several elderly folks died in the process of evacuation. One woman evacuee died after falling in a restaurant. Those thousands who were evacuated had their entire lives and work disrupted – which, naturally, had a snowball effect for the rest of us, as the orders to evacuate affected the entire county.
Were some of these orders to evacuate premature?
Officials admitted that they were erring on the side of caution, still stinging from the criticism after the 2003 Cedar fire that many residents were given very little notice of the approaching wind-driven fires. For example, residents in parts of Scripps Ranch were ordered out with only five minutes notice.
This criticism was deserved because someone in government was asleep at the switch back in October 2003 when the wildfire roared from Ramona to the west over night. However, there is an important distinction between notification of a danger and an order to evacuate.
Again, is it right for residents to be ordered out of their neighborhoods?
Some at least of the many neighborhoods folks were ordered out of, were then abandoned by the firefighters, as they rushed around from hot-spot to hot-spot, under-staffed, under-equipped. What this means is that some times once a neighborhood has been emptied of its residents, there was no one left to fight the fires, to stamp out the embers, to work as “ember sentries”. Why is that important? Fire and government officials would admit that many houses destroyed during wildfires were first hit by flying embers. Embers are in fact the source of much of the destruction.
If people had been authorized to remain behind and hunt down and squash the embers themselves, on their property and on their neighbors’ there very well could have been less destruction. Or even better, if people had been trained by local fire departments to fight these wild fires – a clear, historic, and ever present danger in this neck of the world – maybe there would not have been so many homes destroyed. Hot Santa Ana winds have a significant history here; they’re nothing new. They can be prepared for … by the neighborhoods and their residents. Banding together for the collective interest.
But we’re told government has already done that. They’re already prepared. And we need to get out of the way and not impede them.
What happened to personal responsibility? What happened to collective responsibility on a community or neighborhood level?
Cannot citizens in a free society chose to take the responsibility to protect their homes and the homes of their neighbors if they so wish?
Or is government so fearful of liability that it now makes all of the risk-assessment decisions for us citizens? Perhaps fear of liability is the ultimate reason for the evacuations. Have we handed these important decisions of taking risks over to the government? Is the CDF qualified to make these risk-assessments determinations for us? They can fight fires and as firefighters, they are trained to make life and death decisions on the spot. But there are important philosophical and moral questions here, and these fighters are great on the line of fire, but are they certified to define our freedoms and rights?
We were given other reasons for the calls for residents to leave. By staying, people force the firefighters to have to deal with them and that takes the firefighters away from fighting fires. By staying, people get in the way of the professionals. They impede the very fire fighting designed to help them and their neighbors. But if residents are willing to take the risks, why can’t they be allowed to assist the firefighters? There are a number of fire departments in the county entirely staffed by volunteers. Mount Palomar and parts of Del Dios were supposedly saved by volunteer fire fighters. But the volunteers are trained you say. And the problem is …?
So why doesn’t government allow residents to take the risks? Is it really that government officials don’t want any residents to die or be injured while fighting fires on their watch?
One insight into this query can be seen by what happens once a disaster like this strikes a neighborhood. There immediately is a division between “us” and “them” – the emergency responders – the “professionals” on one side, and the residents – or the “civilians” on the other. So it’s the professionals versus the civilians. In our society’s over-reliance and obsession with the professionalization of the trades and skills needed to run and manage society, there is a strong tendency to divide people up, to fragment them, to separate those with some kind of authority out from those allegedly without any, and now this happens – especially in disasters – around here these days.
But the civilians, the residents – what possibly could they offer in the fight? In many instances, it is the residents who know the area, the terrain, and a good number of them – especially those in the less urban areas – have experience in fighting the little fires that have popped up every now and then on the edges of their properties over the years.
By forcing people out of their homes prematurely, the evacuations may have actually exacerbated the consequences of the fires, as residents were not allowed to catch and wipe out those embers and defend their neighborhoods. This failure by government to allow citizens to stand and fight the fires on a house by house, block by block basis, may have very well allowed more destruction and burnt-out hulls of houses than if they had been allowed to make a stand against the flames themselves.
The politicians and media rejoiced at the scenes of San Diegans helping San Diegans over these last few days. And we can all be proud of how many ordinary people responded to the disaster and losses by fellow citizens. But would not this sense of solidarity have been a hundred times more valuable on the fire lines themselves? Could not our collective responsibility have helped to prevent some of those homes – which now number at 1424 – from being lost?
Discussion continued, “Gov’t Order to Evacuate“