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More Californians refusing to evacuate despite fire danger

Published 19/08/2016

A burned-out residence stands amid rubble on Highway 138 after the Blue Cut Fire burned through Phelan, California (AP)
A burned-out residence stands amid rubble on Highway 138 after the Blue Cut Fire burned through Phelan, California (AP)

As wildfires sweep through parts of California, residents are increasingly choosing to ignore evacuation orders rather than head to safety, officials said.

In the ski town of Wrightwood, only half of its 4,500-plus residents heeded mandatory evacuation orders as towering, fast-moving flames ravaged pine forests nearby in a matter of hours.

Officials said it is another example of a disturbing trend in the state as infernos speed through drought-starved vegetation during what could be California's most hazardous fire season on record.

Instead of heading for safety, many homeowners are staying put and calling emergency services for help, US Forest Service spokesman John Miller said.

"We have seen that throughout the state this year," said Mr Miller, who is assigned to San Bernardino National Forest.

Crews, however, are not always able to reach those who stay behind.

Some say wildfires have now become a part of living in the wildlands.

Kim Boyle, who has experienced half a dozen wildfires during her decade in Wrightwood, said she would evacuate if she saw a fire actually burning in town.

"But it'd have to be closer for me, and I think that's true for a lot of folks around here because they've been through this so many times," she said.

The fire 60 miles east of Los Angeles cast an ominous grey-and-orange haze over the picturesque town at an elevation of 6,000ft that is known for its 1930s cabins.

The blaze began on Tuesday in the Cajon Pass region in hot, gusty conditions and swallowed an undetermined number of homes as it scorched nearly 50 square miles in mountain and desert areas.

Air tankers bombarded rugged slopes with fire retardant on Thursday and a squadron of helicopters dropped load after load of water.

On the ground, firefighters and bulldozers worked to protect Wrightwood and other areas high in the San Gabriel Mountains.

More than 34,000 homes and some 82,000 residents were under evacuation orders at one point.

No fire-related deaths have been reported so far in that blaze, but bodies have been found during other fires that prompted mandatory evacuations.

In June, authorities found the burned remains of a man and woman who were caretakers of property in an area where an evacuation order had been issued near Potrero, about 45 miles east of San Diego.

San Diego fire captain Robert Allen said fire engines have been stuck behind vehicles of people who have waited until the last second to leave.

"I can understand their feelings but at the same time it creates a hazard," he said. "Not only do we have a fire to fight - now we have to save lives."

Leaving or staying when fire approaches is often a personal decision - even though California and some other states consider it a criminal offence to ignore mandatory evacuation orders.

Such offences, however, are rarely prosecuted, according to the American Bar Association.

Ms Boyle said her family felt an obligation to stay and keep their Wrightwood Market open to support firefighters.

She estimated it would take 10 minutes to pack up family photos, important documents and clothes when they did decide to leave.

"Firemen come in and tell us what's going on, and I think that helps us feel better because we get the scoop from them," she said.

"I trust they will do what they need to do and have always done for us. There have been a lot of wildfires around here but the town has always been safe."

Many families that did evacuate are likely to return to find their homes are gone.

Former volunteer firefighter Steve Boyd, 67, stayed behind during a 2003 blaze to protect his home in Lytle Creek from looters. But he decided to evacuate this week.

"It's just stuff," said Mr Boyd, who joined a stream of vehicles on the only road out of town and headed to a shelter.

AP

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