Dealing with disaster is hard enough already. The rules shouldn’t make it harder.
The way we handle evacuations is broken. Current policy actually encourages people to ignore evacuation orders and has, during the Soberanes Fire, led to a wide variety of injustices and absurdities.
In the Palo Colorado area, reporters and photographers were turned loose to kick through the ashes of people’s homes, sometimes rearranging their burned possessions for better photographs, days before the homeowners themselves were allowed to return. In Sycamore Canyon, people were refused permission to return to their homes, even to retrieve family photos and important papers while, several miles and a major ridgeline closer to the fire, tourists remained free to pose for selfies in front of the flames. In Cachagua, and elsewhere, so many people eventually gained permission to access evacuated areas, for one reason or another, that it began to seem like some roads were open to everyone except residents.
As pretty much everyone living in a rural area knows, people in California have a long-established right to remain at home during even a “mandatory” evacuation (a principle dating back to bygone days when it was considered normal for adults to decide for themselves what risks to accept).
Staying at home is not always a bad decision. Many rural residents have made extensive preparations for fire, some have extensive firefighting experience, and those with defensible space often succeed in saving homes that would otherwise have been ignited and burned by flying embers. Fatalities and serious injuries among people who remain at home by choice (as opposed to being trapped there by fire) are extremely rare.
Unfortunately, during the Basin Complex Fire, in 2008, the then Sheriff decided to make life as difficult as possible for residents exercising their right to remain. Deputies threatened to arrest anyone setting foot off their own property, prevented people from coming to the aid of their neighbors, and generally made a bad situation worse. As the evacuation orders remained in place for many days, deputies attempted to starve residents out by refusing to allow deliveries of supplies. In Cachagua, sympathetic firefighters were actually smuggling food and animal feed in to residents cut off behind roadblocks.
Extreme displeasure with the Sheriff over his handling of the Basin Complex evacuations contributed to his defeat at the polls, and those punitive policies are now only a bad memory. But all is still not well.
Under current policy, when a mandatory evacuation is declared, the roads into the evacuation area are (with the strange exception of Highway One during the recent Big Sur evacuation) put under “hard closure.” Residents can stay or go as they choose, but if they leave they will not be allowed to return. The knowledge that, if they leave, they will be barred from their property for days, if not weeks, strongly motivates many people to stay. People who might have chosen to leave during the hours of greatest danger, planning to return to ensure that their homes were not lost to creeping fire in the 24 to 48 hours after the passage of the fire front, decide instead to stay for the duration.
An evacuation policy that encourages people to disregard evacuation orders and subject themselves to greater danger than they would otherwise have chosen to face is obviously dysfunctional.
Then there’s the question of information. Since people have a right to remain at home and it’s obvious that deciding whether to evacuate will be a difficult decision for many people, shouldn’t we provide the people facing that choice with the best information possible about the danger they face if they stay?
When the mandatory evacuation of the Big Sur Valley was ordered, the deputies going door to door at 3:00 am to tell people to flee their homes could offer zero explanation as to why this was necessary. There was no official comment on the reasons for the evacuation until the following afternoon.
Obviously, the person who made the decision to order the evacuation had a reason for doing so (fire that had previously slopped over the line was flaring up and they were afraid it might make a run toward the inhabited parts of the Valley). How difficult would it have been to put a single sentence explaining that into the order? And how much speculation, rumor, fear and anguish might that have avoided?
So here are three simple proposals:
Give residents and business owners the same rights as reporters.
Reporters, by California statute, have a right to enter evacuated public areas (like public roads) so long as they can do so without interfering with firefighters and other emergency personnel. In any circumstance where reporters would be allowed through a road block, residents and business owners should also be allowed through. People who remain on their property during an evacuation order should be able to come and go whenever they would not be interfering with firefighters.
Long after the fire front had passed, Palo Colorado residents outside the evacuation zone were told they could not return to their homes due to hazardous conditions, like falling trees and rolling rocks. Those who had stayed were, of course, free to go on facing these dangers. This is not acceptable. Adults, whether at home or away when the roadblocks go up, should not have decisions about what is or isn’t too dangerous made for them.
Don’t issue evacuation orders without an explanation.
Keep evacuation order forms on hand that read something like:
An evacuation is ordered for (describe area to be evacuated) due to (brief explanation of why, giving some sense of the immediacy of the danger).
People really should have a right to know whether an evacuation is being called because the fire is making a hard run at their neighborhood and is expected to impact structures within an hour or two, or whether it’s being called as a precautionary measure, due to fire spotting over a distant line.
Come up with a better term than Mandatory Evacuation.
Since residents have a right to stay, evacuations are not genuinely mandatory. Calling them that creates confusion and contributes to an atmosphere in which people exercising their rights are seen as outlaws. If Evacuation Advisory doesn’t sound strong enough, I’m sure someone can come up with a term that is both accurate and conveys the desired sense of urgency.
If a major fire every eight or nine years is the new normal, these issues are going to keep recurring. The time to develop a fair and workable evacuation policy is now.