As the Ranch Fire raged through California’s Lake County earlier this year, about 27,000 residents evacuated per fire officials’ orders.
Others did not.
Derrick Hughes and about five of his neighbors disobeyed the evacuation alerts they received in order to protect their homes and keep looters out. While the 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran did send his wife and two daughters to safety, he himself chose to stay behind, claiming he had too much at stake to leave.
During wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters, many people choose to defy evacuation orders, putting themselves and emergency responders at risk. Why?
There are several reasons why someone may choose to stay when ordered to evacuate. One has to do with perception of risk. If a natural disaster (such as a wildfire) has not occurred in an area for many years, residents are more likely to perceive the risk as minimal.
–Article Continues Below–
On the other hand, if residents have already weathered many storms (or wildfires) which caused little personal damage, they may think authorities are “crying wolf.” Also, if they’ve endured one evacuation scenario after another, they may just be tired of it all. Such is the case with Californians in recent years.
Those with health issues or disabilities may simply be unable to leave their homes and don’t have anyone to help them.
In early August, Lake County authorities reported that three men in a pickup truck refused to evacuate, as the Ranch Fire threatened to engulf the California town of Lucerne.
Instead, the men chose to stay behind and tend to their marijuana crop, just 20 yards from the fire line. As a result, fire officials had to divert three air tanker passes.
When the men became hostile to the fire crews, sheriff’s deputies were summoned. Law enforcement arrived and found the men watering their pot plants.
The three were arrested on suspicion of interfering with firefighters. They were later released with citations.
The term “mandatory evacuation” is really a misnomer.
In California–and pretty much everywhere else–mandatory evacuations are, in effect, not mandatory. Law enforcement agencies do not force residents to leave.
And yet, by choosing to stay, residents place themselves and rescue workers at risk. So what can be done? Should they literally pay for their decisions?
Steve Whitmore of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department thinks that might be a good idea. He’s been raising the question:
“Should people be held fiscally responsible for causing additional resources to be exercised because they refuse to play by the rules?”
Other jurisdictions have tried more creative methods. In 2005, some coastal Virginia residents refused to leave despite an approaching hurricane. Frustrated rescue workers issued magic markers and asked them to write their social security numbers on their limbs and torsos. So that their remains could be identified.