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Braving the blaze

Posted: September 5, 2009 7:44 p.m.
Updated: September 6, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Suzanne Goddard-Smythe unloads her belongings as she returns home after mandatory evacuation orders were lifted during the Station Fire in Glendale on Wednesday.

 
Steve Trotta's car was packed, his evacuation route was mapped and his ear was glued to his walkie-talkie listening for any chatter from firefighters on which direction the Station Fire would blow.

But Trotta didn't heed the initial instruction to evacuate.

"Unless we're clearly in danger I'm not going to leave," said Trotta, 49, of Acton. "I don't think we're really in danger."

Trotta's words came as the Station Fire bore down on the rural community of Acton on Aug. 30, almost a day after a mandatory evacuation order was in place for residents who, like Trotta, live on the southern and eastern edges of town.

In the days since the Station Fire erupted, burning more than 150,000 acres, destroying at least 76 homes and claiming the lives of two firefighters, emergency officials have stressed the importanceof evacuating.

"Once the fire department has order an evacuation, the fire is either close enough to prompt the evacuation order or the terrain is conducive to spreading the fire in the area we are asking to be evacuated," said Stephanie English, Los Angeles County Fire Department spokeswoman.

English stressed that waiting until the last minute to leave is unwise.

"Someone without knowledge of fire behavior and how terrain and heat impact the way the fire will burn is taking an extreme risk," English added.

Geography counts
Fire crews saved Trotta's home and neighborhood. But the dangers posed by not evacuating during a fire driven by geography - such as the Station Fire - are numerous, according to Dan Simpson, logistics section chief for the Station Fire and a member of the Garden Valley Fire Department in El Dorado County.

Simpson travels across the country during the summer months fighting fires.

He said the geography-driven Station Fire doesn't resemble normal California wildfire behavior.

"This is not the type of fire you see in Southern California," he said. "This is the type of fire you see in Montana. It's not wind driven."

Topographical fires trace the landscape based on the available fuel, Simpson said. The danger in that is topographical fires are more likely to create their own wind and weather.

"The fire draws in wind that creates an updraft or fire column," Simpson said. That fire column can grow to more than 100 feet in height.

Such fire columns were sighted by firefighters in Acton during the Station Fire. Warren Hubbard of the El Dorado County Fire Department said 40-mph winds were sucked into the fire as it raged near the fire line in Acton last Sunday night.

Hubbard said the winds pushed up a fire column in excess of 100 feet.

The danger doesn't come from the winds that are sucked into the fire like a vacuum, but from what happens when the fire column collapses under pressure of cold air from higher in the atmosphere.

"When the fire column collapses, the wind and flames shoot out in all different directions," Simpson said. This violent explosion of fire and wind spreads the flames.

Danger to rescuers
Refusing to leave when told to evacuate often puts emergency personnel in the precarious position of having to make daring rescue attempts, said Steve Whitmore, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesman.

During the Station Fire two residents in Tujunga refused to leave. When the flames pressed down on the mountain home, the two men took refuge in a hot tub.

Two helicopters lifted the men to safety, but not before the victims suffered second- and third-degree burns. Their names were not released.

"It was an extraordinarily difficult rescue," Whitmore said. "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."

Distrust of government
Two universities are now studying the reluctance on the part of some in disaster areas to evacuate.

"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 staying put, according to wildfire studies by the National University System Institute for Policy Research in San Diego.

Doing so is not illegal, at least not in California.

"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."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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