Blue Cut fire: Should California evacuations be mandatory?

The massive fire, which began on Tuesday, has forced 82,000 people to evacuate their homes, raising questions about the effectiveness and necessity of 'mandatory' evacuations.

Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters
Hotshot firefighters build a fire line after the fire jumped Lytle Creek Road during the Blue Cut fire in San Bernardino County, Calif. Wednesday night.

The Blue Cut fire raging in southern California burned nearly 50 square miles of land and forced the evacuation of 82,000 people.

But while many mandatory evacuation orders have been issued since the fire began burning out of control on Tuesday, many people are choosing to ignore them. In hopes of protecting their homes and their belongings, many residents have opted to take their chances at home. That's an impulse fire officials say they sympathize with but also caution could divert firefighters away from the front lines of the blaze if residents who stay behind later need to be rescued.

Despite the "mandatory" label, refusing to evacuate in the event of a conflagration such as the Blue Cut fire will likely bring little to no legal repercussions to those who refuse to leave. Each state has different laws about mandatory evacuation, but those laws tend to go unenforced more often than not.

According to an "Evacuation Tips" pamphlet published by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, refusal to comply with an order by police to leave an "area where a menace to public health or safety exists due to a calamity such as flood, storm, fire, earthquake, explosion, accident or other disaster" is a misdemeanor.

In California, a misdemeanor is punishable by fines up to $1,000, up to one year in jail, or both, according to the Superior Court of California's Santa Clara website.

In many states, however, punishments for refusing a mandatory evacuation are rarely carried out.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, New York Mayor Bloomberg announced that those who refused the evacuation order would not face arrest, despite a law on the books carrying up to three months of jail time for those who chose to stay, according to Avvo, a legal services marketplace.

The reason mandatory evacuation punishments are rarely carried through is because of the nature of the misdemeanor. An article in the journal Health Affairs examining mandatory evacuation orders noted that mandatory evacuation certainly has the potential to save lives, particularly those of children or others not capable of making informed decisions to stay home in an evacuation situation. However, it also noted that most people who refuse are not causing harm to others, and many people view government interference at that level as overly paternalistic

Glen Barley, Unit Chief at the fires Incident Command Post, would disagree. He said in an interview with NPR discussing the Blue Cut fire that "All too frequently we see people go and they look out the window and think, 'Oh, it's not too bad right now,' and then the condition changes so rapidly that when it's suddenly so bad it's too late." At that point, firefighters would have to put themselves in more danger in order to rescue anyone who refused to evacuate.

In spite of this, mandatory evacuations are still hard to enforce, and efforts to do so are compounded when large numbers of people refuse to leave.

In Wrightwood, Calif., the encroaching flames are doing little to keep a large portion of the town's 4,500 residents from staying, according to ABC7. Even Wrightwood's local sandwich shop and bakery remain open as the flames come ever closer to the town.

"We've had worse, and we've stayed through it." Sherri Hannon, a resident of Wrightwood, told ABC7. "I'm staying."

For some in Wrightwood, the decision to stay lies with the feeling that the risk is not yet high enough to be worth the effort and of evacuating. For Ms. Hannon, the decision is more personal. 

"I don't want to leave the house. My parents built it in '89, and it's all I have left of them."

The decision to stay is risky. As of Thursday morning, the fire has only been 4 percent contained, according to a local fire tracker. 

While many people might initially ignore evacuation orders for now, the size and ferocity of the fire will likely send many more packing before the fire is finally out.

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