Mandatory Evacuations – Are They Any Good Or Do They Contribute to the Fire Damage?

by on October 25, 2007 · 13 comments

in Civil Rights

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

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar barbara cummings October 26, 2007 at 6:16 pm

Yes, excellent points. I have 2 close friends who stayed in Scripps Ranch after getting every single bit of info available on where the fires were and made sure they had an escape route should it have been necessary. They had less smoke in their neighborhood than I did. This will be a debate that will go on for a long time. And yes, Duncan, what about all that influence? where were the planes, the tanker? At least Darryl Issa admitted y’all dropped the ball and did not follow through on the VERY SAME jurisdictional issues that prevented the planes from flying back in 2003.


avatar Lorna Zukas October 26, 2007 at 9:20 pm

Great blog on this issue. Excellent questions are raised re: mindless obedience (which none of us should have under any circumstances).

It is true that some people who stayed to fight the fires died, but this is/was their risk and their choice.


avatar David G. Urban October 27, 2007 at 12:20 am

“Several elderly folks died in the process of evacuation. One woman evacuee died after falling in a restaurant. ”

I’d like to know more about these deaths. Is there any link to a story about this?


avatar patty October 27, 2007 at 1:17 am
avatar David G. Urban October 27, 2007 at 10:01 am


I read carefully your article, and it just doesn’t make sense. On one hand, you agree mistakes were made in the Cedar fire where authorities didn’t do enough, and now you say they did too much.

The idea that you can allow 520,000 people make individual decisions about what to do in the face of an oncoming firestorm is ludicrous. It only invites panic and chaos.

The people making the evacuation decisions have access to far more information about what’s happening than the individual does. Your fuzzy and blurry question about “but are they certified to define our freedoms and rights?” is absurd.

Individual homeowners have many options before a fire to improve their chances of surviving: brush clearance, fire-resistant building materials, fire-proofing additives, and so forth. If a fire hits, and it is so severe that the firefighters are saying get out, then it’s time to go.

And about this:

“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.”

What is the relationship between “an instant community was formed” and “despite not being allowed to pitch tents on the green?”

And as for the order to close Qualcomm to evacuees, 95% of them had left already. It makes no sense to keep a giant facility open for so few, especially when other evac centers were available and had more than enough room.

If the authorities had not ordered mandatory evacs, I’m sure you would have been first in line to criticize that, too. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.


avatar David G. Urban October 27, 2007 at 10:16 am

To Patty,

Thank-you for providing those links.


avatar Patty October 27, 2007 at 1:19 pm

Maybe insurance companies will start offering fire fighting classes to homeowners, to teach us what we can do to help and to recognize when we can’t help any longer. Who else has as much to lose as we do?


avatar David G. Urban October 27, 2007 at 2:15 pm

You know, that’s actually a pretty good idea. Tie in some classes with insurance premium discounts, along with insurance premium discounts for “fire-proofing” your home with fire retardent landscaping, materials, etc..

Or, how about earning a certificate from the fire department by taking fire classes and passing a yearly inspection with the local fire department. Those that are certified and have passed inspection would have exemption-status from mandatory evacuations and wouldn’t have to worry about being arrested for merely trying to defend his house.


avatar j e c October 28, 2007 at 2:02 pm

David’s choice of words is telling – “The idea that you can allow 520,000 people make individual decisions”. Are these words best suited for a democractic society? People making decisions about risk and what’s important to them – should they be “allowed”? I think not.

The authorities base decisions on political and liability considerations. Most of us base decisions on those things we care about and love. Is it for the government to judge the depth on my love and control what risks I’m willing to take and why? But there is a practical side to all of this.

Ember sentry – the image David is probably imagining is the wall of fire – the huge dramatic all engulfing massive firestorm. We clear brush from around our homes to reduce the wall of fire risks. But unless there are ember sentries, having a 100 foot perimeter is wasted. Most homes burn down due to embers, not walls of fire. Consider the former Fire Chief Bowman, he refused to leave. He knows. A few embers as small as a match head can burn down an entire neighborhood if the community has been abandoned to the elements.

I grew up fighting brush fires – in LA in the 50’s and 60’s fighting brush fires was a community event. Things have changed. Have we lost courage? Is not a mass evacuation a retreat? A surrender? Yes, there are risks. Always have been. The weak and venerable should flee – but the able bodied need to stand and fight back. The Lord helps those who help themselves.


avatar David G. Urban October 28, 2007 at 4:37 pm

Well, as a society, we limit personal freedoms all the time. We have to.

Imagine if we didn’t: Everybody driving any which way they want, or your neighbor building anything he wants next door. It doesn’t happen because we have traffic laws and zoning laws, and a myriad of other laws, regulations, covenents, and so on that limit and define just what you can or cannot do, and thus keep things running smoothly.

As individuals, we sometimes chafe under these rules. Everybody has their own opinion just where the lines should be drawn. When the lines are drawn, about half will say they are too harsh, and the other half will say they are too lenient.

And that’s under ordinary times. In emergencies, broad decisions need to made quickly, and there just isn’t the time for democratic debate.

I’m all for individual responsibility and courage. But let’s examine the case of Thomas Vorshak, the first fatality of the fires.

He was about my age, and I’m sure a very fine man. He made a decision to stay and fight for his house, and subsequently lost his life.

I believe he had every right to do so.

He also, I believe, had a responsibility to protect his 15 year old son and evacuate. The son ended up being gravely injured in the fire. Where was the point where his right and responsibility intersected? To which did he have the greater claim?

This is an ethical and moral argument that could go on for years.

I still submit that in this type of emergency, a central decision serves us better than 520,000 individual ones. Although, as Patti and I have suggested, there may be ways to accommodate those who are adamant about staying behind to fight. And I can agree that your idea about an ember sentry has merit.


avatar Frank Gormlie November 3, 2007 at 6:11 pm

Barbara –
You’re right to level criticism at those elected officials who had us believe the aircraft solution had been resolved. More recent news accounts have shown the “heated” nature of discussions between Co. Bd. of supervisors Ron Roberts with Cal Fire officials. But still Roberts told us that this issue had been resolved. And it took Congressional intervention to get the planes and helos off the ground, and by then, most of the fires were over.

On the ‘absurd’ nature of my claims, I can say that both you and Patty, and now myself, all agree that prior fire fighting training of residents who live in fire-prone areas — whether provided for by insurance companies or not — is warranted. Your idea of the certicate is interesting … However, part of the point is — if we had more resources in equipment and personnel to fight fires, perhaps these evacuations would not have to be so wide-spread. And again, being notified of a danger is not the same as being ordered to evacuate.
On the Qualcomm problems – we’re finding out more and more of the ugly side of the stadium: a Mexican family falsely accused of looting and being arrested, Mexican families being woken up at night for ID checks. My comment about people not being allowed to camp on the green fields was meant to show that sport franchises in this town count more than the comfort of our citizens in discomfort and need. ‘Hey, but, go ahead and pitch your tent over there on the cement!’
I don’t believe there was a single arrest of anyone for staying and fighting for their home. j e c spoke eloquently on the ember sentry issue and it sounds like you were convinced. There’s a real practical side to having people stand and put out the embers.
I’m not advocating that we have a ‘democratic debate’ during an emergency. Why can’t we raise and resolve these issues before the emergency? Some of the lessons from Cedar ’03 were learned — such as having all first responders on the same radio frequency; but we also thought the use of military aircraft had been resolved too. Yet our government still has failed to adequately gather sufficient fire fighting resources. Our fire chief resigned — over this issue.
We also have to realize that wildfires are an intregal part of the Southern California ecology, and not some freak aberration. We must stop building in fire zones. Another issue re: mandatory evacuations — why enable blind obedience to government orders? We already have enough of that.


avatar Ryan November 13, 2007 at 8:22 pm

I have one friend who luckily still has his home today. The reason? He ignored the evacuation orders and stayed and fought for his house. Everybody in his neighborhood that stayed and fought the fire still has a home. Everybody that evacuated came back to nothing.

A lot of preparedness goes a long ways but I would stay and fight and have previously. My parents live in the hills above Riverside and have dealt with fires coming right down to the property line. They have a swimming pool and have two water pumps ready to go. The last time they had a fire we stood on the roof and put out embers that were falling all around us. With a wood shingle roof at the time, our house would have burned to the ground if we had not been there.


avatar Shawn Conrad November 26, 2007 at 5:11 pm

I should have every right to die protecting my home.



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