Evacuation is emotional topic, chief says
The debate about whether to stay and attempt to defend your home or evacuate to a safe place when a wildfire strikes only has one answer in the mind of CalFire Battalion Chief Greg Griswold with the Ramona Fire Department.
“If you are asked to evacuate, please do. It makes our job so much easier,” Griswold said. “If we know that you are still in an area, we have to keep that in the back of our minds, and worry about what you are doing and whether you are safe or not.
“I know that this is a very emotional subject and I understand that people want to stay and protect their homes—we all do. But in my experience, people who don’t evacuate panic when the fire gets there, and then they feel a need to leave. But by then, the visibility can be down to zero sometimes and they can run off the road.”
Or they block roads so that firefighters can’t get in and other residents can’t get out, said Griswold.
“In the Witch fire in October 2007, we had no less than 40 rescue calls from people who wanted to stay and changed their mind,” Griswold said.
And firefighters were not able to reach all of those needing help.
Some homeowners survived by jumping into ponds and pools, but a couple on Highland Valley Road were not so fortunate and perished in the flames.
“We tried to get two fire engines in there to help but could not,” Griswold said. “I still think about that every day.”
But saving lives is not the only issue here.
“Rescue attempts take away valuable resources that could be spent on saving structures and trying to take the offense to suppress fire activity,” Griswold said. “As the years of drought have persisted, the burning conditions have become more critical and we have huge challenges in this area. The 2003 and 2007 fires burned hotter and faster than anything we’ve ever seen before. I think a lot of people were taken by surprise.”
Technically, fire and police officials cannot force people to leave their home against their will, unless they have minor children. And there are times that it might be safe to stay, Griswold said.
“But when an evacuation is ordered, we don’t have time to go to each homeowner and say, ‘You’ve got clearance, it’s OK for you to stay, but it’s not OK for your neighbor. They must leave.”
A lot depends on the behavior of a fire, he explained. A situation that could be safe “that one time” could be fatal with different conditions.
As reports of Santa Ana winds have started to pop up, Griswold said that now is the time to make plans for evacuating.
“Get prepared. Think about what you are going to take—any property or valuables. What are you going to do with your animals? Have plans in place before that day comes,” he said. “If you have questions or want more information, contact your local fire station. We have all kinds of material that we can hand out and we’ll do whatever we can to help you.”
Like everyone else, Griswold hopes that the catastrophic fires of 2003 and 2007 will not be repeated.
“I would like to end my career,” he said, “without seeing anything like that again.”
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