Flee or stay and defend? Rethinking evacuation from wildfire

News from around the Ojai Valley

Thomas Fire dilemma: Stay or go? Residents, fire officials rethink evacuations

web 2 Firefighters
Photo provided by CAPS Media
Firefighters try to save a house during the Thomas Fire.


Kit Stolz, special to the Ojai Valley News
On the night of Dec. 4, 2017, fueled by high winds, the Thomas Fire spread with devastating speed from a canyon in the hills behind Santa Paula, and from a second start atop a ridge in Upper Ojai, destroying hundreds of homes and properties, forever altering the lives of thousands of people, torching 281,893 acres, and killing 70-year-old Virginia Pesola, evacuating from the fire in Wheeler Canyon in Santa Paula.
Pesola’s tragic death was unique among the more than 90,000 people who fled the Thomas Fire in its first 24 hours, but in the aftermath of the massive evacuation, residents and officials alike are questioning both their own actions and those of officials in the face of the fire.
Some residents believe that because they stayed to fight the fire, defying the mandatory evacuation order, they saved their houses. Others who have questioned their own evacuation and fire preparedness, are “hardening” their homes to better prepare for fire and are doubting conventional fire-disaster planning. And Ventura County fire officials, as well, are thinking twice about their procedures in light of the unprecedented speed and ferocity of the Thomas Fire.
These questions of preparedness and response [were] aired in a public discussion sponsored by the Ojai Chautauqua, called: “Not If, But When — Preparing for the Next Wildland Fire,” held March 30, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Matilija Junior High School Auditorium.
The fire start
 web 3 22 Charles Law
Photo by Kit Stolz
Charles Law demonstrates how he fought the Thomas Fire at his house at the base of Anlauf Canyon.
For Charles Law, evacuating was not an option. The fire was upon his property at the base of Anlauf Canyon near Steckel Park before he had time to think of making a choice. He was one of the first to fight the blaze, which began in the canyon directly above his property.
On March 12, Ventura County Fire Department investigators and Cal Fire released a 71-page report, concluding that “power lines owned and operated by Southern California Edison were the cause of the Thomas Fire.” On March 20, they released a 38-page report that the Koenigstein Road Fire that merged with the Thomas Fire hours later, started about 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 4, 2017, when an energized electrical conductor separated between two power poles. That equipment was also owned and operated by Southern California Edison.
“I have no idea when it first started; I just know that when I looked up there, I saw the whole canyon was glowing red,” Law recounted last month in an interview with the Ojai Valley News. “I ran out of the house with my truck keys to get the truck out and back it up to the horse trailer and by the time I was lowering the trailer down on the ball hitch, the flames were already on me.”
Law managed to load his horses and dogs and sent them off with his wife, Christine. A Santa Paula fire crew arrived as he battled to knock back knee-high flames. He said firefighters set backfires and used their tank of water on the truck to wet down the house and property as the fire roared down the canyon.
“I think the firefighters knew what was going to happen,” he said. “It was like a freight train was coming down on us and there was a moment when it seemed like all the air was sucked in and then combusted almost like an explosion. They yelled: ‘Get down! Get down!’ and we laid down and it just blew through like a wall of flames and it was past and they were yelling, ‘OK — everybody up!’ and they were back at it. I was like whoa, dude, this is crazy, man.”
Law worked frantically through the night to save his home, throwing a burning tree limb off his roof, wetting down fires around the house, hauling smoldering hay and rubber mats out of his barn, inhaling smoke so toxic it made him vomit.
“You need to be vigilant, living in this area,” he said. “I don’t let leaves build up. I rake, I blow the leaves off my roof, I work around my little ranch to make sure there’s nothing that will burn close to the house. I understand where I live.”
Law — who grew up in the Santa Paula area and has faced wildfires on his land before — never considered leaving his property during the fire, despite the risks.
Others knew they had no choice. Meghan Belgum, who lived with her husband and two children on a ridgetop ranch on Koenigstein Road, said that although her husband, Josh, did not want to evacuate, they knew they had to flee.
“It did feel like we waited until the last minute,” she said. “It was like Armageddon above us. Everything was burning. It was pure chaos. We all piled into the car with the dog and had the AC on full blast. After we got out of there, we stopped at the Summit (Restaurant). Josh really wanted to go back, but we knew it wasn’t possible.”
Limited options
John McNeil of Ojai, a Ventura County Fire Department division chief, said: “We didn’t have a clear picture of the scale initially. When we saw it from a distance, we upgraded the fire after that initial report, and then brought additional (firefighting) resources. I made my way to Anlauf Canyon and then to the college. We set up an initial command post at Mill Park. We huddled up and put our plan together. While we were huddling, we heard of a second fire start on Koenigstein Road.”
Already, the fire had reached Highway 150 in the Steckel Park area. Because this area between Santa Paula and Ojai has but one windy, two-lane public road in and out, firefighters had limited options.
“Where the wind impacted Highway 150, we had power poles down,” McNeil said. “For public safety, and to preserve (the Fire Department’s) access, we decided to evacuate the area and to close the road. We allowed people to drive out.”
McNeil said he was especially alarmed by the news of the second fire start at the top of Koenigstein Road. “I said I know the area well and I have an idea where that fire is. I said let’s get people out of their homes. We couldn’t have had a worse situation, with 80 percent of our resources going to the first fire start.”
Evacuations ordered
The Ventura County Fire Department, Sheriff’s Department officers, and Search and Rescue unit officials evacuated more than 90,000 people in harm’s way in the first 24 hours of the fire, according to official accounts. However, many residents — especially in Upper Ojai — refused to leave.
Although public-safety officials can pressure residents to leave, they cannot arrest those who refuse. To compel compliance, officials often resort to strong language to make wavering residents aware of the risks. Bill Slaughter, who leads the Upper Ojai Search and Rescue unit and often has been charged with evacuating recalcitrant residents, has developed a method.
“I’ll tell residents that I’m strongly recommending that they leave,” he said. “If they’re still resistant, I’ll ask both the husband and the wife for their phone numbers, and tell them that we need to know in case we need help after the fire telling crews where to look for the remains. It’s usually at that point that the wife begins tugging on her husband’s arm and saying we need to get the hell out of here.”
Peter Deneen, a graduate student who was visiting his parents in Upper Ojai, said sheriff’s deputies drove up their driveway and sternly told them to get out. “Dad and I had stayed behind to wait and see,” Deneen said. “But the fire jumped our property and embers were starting new fires all around us. The thick smoke made breathing and seeing quite difficult. When the deputies pulled in, we didn’t really think there was a choice.”
Hours later, the Deneens learned that their house had been saved by two neighbors, John Hall and Steve Hassien, who had stayed. Hall estimated he refilled his water backpack 50 times from the Deneen’s pool.
Looking back, Deneen — a former Coast Guard officer who worked as a volunteer to house many Upper Ojai residents burned out of their homes — now understands why residents with a safe place to make a stand and experience firefighting stay to fight the fire.
“In a lot of locations in the wildlands-urban interface, according to plan, fire officials are going to be moving ahead of the firefront, evacuating residents,” Deneen said. “If you are in a location where you have reason to believe you will be safe, have a good means of defense and reason to believe that help may not be coming in time, why would you leave?”
Evacuation policy changes
Ventura fire officials, led by retired Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper, developed their “Ready, Set, GO!” fire plan a decade ago after they became convinced that too many residents were staying to fight fires, risking “going down with the house.” They modeled the Ready, Set, GO! plan on the Australian plan developed after the “Black Saturday” fires of 2009 burned more than a million acres and killed an estimated 180 people, forcing a complete overhaul of fire procedures.
“We considered adopting the Australian program, which was called Leave Early or Stay and Defend,” Roper said, “but we realized, as public leaders, we have to provide a message that best serves public safety, so we modified the Australian program into the Ready, Set, GO! program.”
Roper said firefighters call for early evacuations because fires today are behaving as they never have before, due in part to climate change. As an example, he pointed out that in Upper Ojai, the Thomas Fire burned along Lion Creek drainage near Highway 150, destroying properties along the way. Even the large Ranch Fire, which burned through Upper Ojai in 1991, did not touch the drainage or nearby properties.
McNeil said he understands why residents are often reluctant to leave their homes in the face of a fire. “I get it,” he said. “The Ready, Set, GO! philosophy and program have been successful, but because of all the challenges we face today, I think we need to rethink it. Our weed abatement program has value for a majority of our fire situations, but it’s of limited use in a world where a fire like the Thomas Fire is throwing embers a mile ahead of the firefront. It’s still valuable in that it provides a safer environment for firefighters to work in.”
McNeil added that firefighters are rethinking mass evacuations and looking for safe places for residents to evacuate closer to their homes.
“We want to be more realistic and know ahead of time where, with a team effort, we can get to a place where we’re better at surviving a fire, and have this place designated for multiple hazards, such as fires and floods,” he said. “We’re going to be looking for satellite areas instead of sending everyone to the (Ventura County) fairgrounds. We have Summit School as a possible safe space that could sustain us for a while in the Upper Ojai area.”

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Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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