Evacuation holdouts defy danger to protect homes
by Christina Hoag and Greg Risling
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Mike Tarzian didn't even bother watering down his roof of his Tujunga home. He closed all the windows, leaned a ladder against the house for firefighters and stuck a case of water in the fridge. Then he went outside to watch for flames with other neighbors who decided to ignore a mandatory evacuation order and stay on their properties.
"It's my house, I don't want anything to happen to it," said the 47-year-old film producer, whose wife and daughter left Monday to stay with friends. "I'd rather be here and leave at the last minute than down the hill not knowing what's happening."
Pockets of holdouts are cropping up all over the swath of Los Angeles County imperiled by the wildfire, exasperating authorities who say people are just plain foolhardy and vastly underestimate the risk they run in hunkering down against the blaze.
One of the most visible holdout episodes in the fire occurred Saturday when two men ignored an evacuation order and remained in the Tujunga home they were staying in. As they were hosing down the roof, flames erupted. The men, whose names have not been released, jumped off the roof into a hot tub and remained there several hours.
The water offered scant protection. The men, aged 53 and 40, sustained second and third-degree burns on their faces, arms and legs from the fire and had to be rescued one at a time by a medivac helicopter after a regular helicopter could not get to the home because of the flames. They were in stable condition Tuesday.
"It was an extraordinarily difficult rescue," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore. "It took about 45 minutes and put everybody's lives at risk. If there is a mandatory evacuation order, it means you are in danger right now and get out."
The phenomenon of people refusing to leave their homes arises during virtually every disaster. It has become such an issue in Texas, which has seen its share of hurricane holdouts, that a law went into effect Tuesday giving police the power to arrest residents who refuse to heed a mandatory order.
In California, authorities cannot force residents to leave against their will, only emphasize that they stay at their own risk, said Whitmore.
"It's a combination of bravado, people who won't listen to authority and those who seek adventure," said Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness. "It crosses the line from bravado to stupidity."
About 20 percent of homeowners in a mandatory fire evacuation area stay put, according to a wildfire studies by the National University System Institute for Policy Research in San Diego.
"They're typically men — a type of machismo thing — and have a greater distrust in government's ability to respond to a fire," said Erik Bruvold, institute president. "They're ready and willing to rely on their own individual abilities."
But holdouts say they can better save their homes, especially when firefighting resources run thin. That "stay and defend" strategy, which trains residents in how to protect their properties, has been mostly successful in Australia, and Southern California officials were considering encouraging it earlier this year.
However, after Australian bushfires last summer claimed 130 lives, the idea has been largely abandoned in California.
That hasn't daunted Joseph Stachura. He's staying with his 3,500-square-foot home in Big Tujunga Canyon where he has his own well and a pump that can drain 12,000 gallons of water from his pool. He has also stocked fireproofing gel to spray on his roof along with other firefighting supplies.
"Sometimes it really is up to you to save your house," said Stachura, 45, who owns a theater. "It's not like people are standing around out here doing nothing."
That was the key reason why Charlie Seo stayed behind to protect his La Crescenta home. "What if firefighters can't make it to every house?" the 29-year-old high school chemistry teacher said.
He and a dozen neighbors banded together to form a 24-hour patrol, forming a rotation of three-hour shifts to keep a watch out for flying embers so they could be immediately doused. Neighbors who evacuated left out their garden hoses and showed those who stayed where sprinkler switches were located.
"We weren't trying to be defiant and we're not here to cause more trouble," Seo said. "But it's our home and if we lose it, we lose a lot."
Some believe authorities overstate the danger. "They're erring on the side of caution," Tarzian said. "If we really feel the threat of flames, we're going. I've got my motorcycle. I'll just blast down the hill."