Going Down With the Ship: Why Some People Refuse to Evacuate

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Going Down With the Ship: Why Some People Refuse to Evacuate

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What to Do About Those Who Won’t Evacuate?

Some people insist on remaining in their homes after an evacuation has been ordered. Why? What psychological forces are at play here?

No Explanation Given

The people themselves do not always offer an explanation.

Take, for example, some of the Alberta residents who refused to evacuate during last year’s devastating Fort McMurray fire.

“They are not giving us a reason, they are just refusing to go,” said RCMP Sgt. Jack Poitras. Rooting out residents who refuse to leave is part of his job. And they were making a tough job even harder. (See related article, “Lessons From The Alberta Wildfire: Be Prepared.“)

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Who Are You People?

And look at the Los Angeles-area fires of 2009.

La Crescenta resident Douglas Farr adamantly refused to leave. “I’m going to go down with the ship,” he said, while taking photos of the approaching flames. Farr planned to fight them with his garden hose, something his neighbors also tried.

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When the flames came to Scott Handley’s Los Angeles County stone house, he stayed inside. He later
recalled that no matter which window he looked out from, it was “just a solid wall of flames…like a tornado with fire.”

In September of 2015, two men died after declining pleas by friends and family to leave. According to Lynnette Round, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the two elderly men died because they rejected evacuation orders to leave their Calaveras County homes.

What’s the Reasoning Here?

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Psychiatrist Keith Ablow believes that “There is always a ‘why’ that explains seemingly inexplicable human behavior.” He offers the following explanations:

First, many people will resist believing that a rare and highly dramatic event could actually occur in their normal, everyday lives. They see themselves as too ordinary for something like that. To them, an evacuation order just does not comport with their idea of “real life.”

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A second group who refuse evacuations are those who distrust authority figures. Is this just a plot to take over their lives? According to an article in Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, distrust of authorities played a role in residents’ reactions to evacuation warnings for Hurricane Katrina. As one hurricane victim stated, “They could have did [sic] a lot better than what they did…The whole deal was a total letdown.”

Death Wish?

Clinically depressed people may also stay behind. Consciously or unconsciously, they may want to be swept away by the disaster. It would provide them a relief from their suffering.

Lastly, are those folks who believe they’ve “heard it all before.” They regard the governmental authorities and emergency workers as “boys who’ve cried wolf” too many times.

What Can Authorities Do?

As it turns out, enforcement of mandatory evacuation orders is actually quite limited.

In Canada, there are certain measures which authorities can take, but only if children are involved, according to criminal lawyer Michael Shapray.


“If someone were to refuse to leave their home and there were to be children in the home, I think the Ministry would move in quickly and could remove the children,” Shapray said. In parts of the United States, however, the police do have the power to arrest those who refuse to obey an evacuation order, but such instances are still quite rare. For instance, Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Mark Savage points out that “California law prohibits people being forced from their homes.”

The Cost to the Rest of Us

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According to Capt. Savage, those who refuse to evacuate “put our firefighters and rescuers in danger because we had to go in an area that wasn’t safe.” And they tie up critical resources.

Should those who stay literally pay for their decisions?

Steve Whitmore of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department recently raised the question. “Should people be held fiscally responsible for causing additional resources to be exercised because you refuse to play by the rules?” The question continues to be debated.

In the meantime, the LA County Sheriff’s Department and other governmental entities routinely take down names and addresses of those who refuse to evacuate.

Not for the purpose of penalizing them… but to notify their next of kin.


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