Blue Cut Fire commander says evacuation holdouts didn't detract from firefight

Rocky Opliger, Blue Cut Fire Incident Commander, at fire headquarters at Glen Helen Regional Park, Aug. 22, 2016
Rocky Opliger, Blue Cut Fire Incident Commander, at fire headquarters at Glen Helen Regional Park, Aug. 22, 2016
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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At least half the residents whose homes were threatened by the Blue Cut Fire ignored mandatory evacuation orders, but the holdouts' presence in no way affected the fire suppression strategy or resources, according to the top official overseeing the effort.

Having so many people stay behind when asked to leave does ratchet up the risk to firefighters and residents, but on this fire, at least, no ill effects resulted, said Rocky Opliger, incident commander heading up the Southern California Interagency Incident Command Team 4.

Despite the lack of consequences, Opliger said he's frustrated, noting that authorities legally cannot force people to leave their residences.

"Unfortunately, it's going to take a catastrophic event that we will have fatalities, and it's not a matter of 'if' — it's 'when,'" he said.

The Blue Cut Fire burned about 36,000 acres, including 105 homes and more than 200 other structures in communities near the Cajon Pass.

Fire Tracker: Blue Cut Fire in San Bernardino County

Although it is fire authorities who request the evacuation orders, it is law enforcement officers who carry them out. Deputies of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department go door-to-door logging the names and addresses of the people who ignore the evacuation orders.

Based on those contacts, only 40-50 percent of the 82,000 people who were under mandatory evacuation orders in communities around the Cajon Pass actually left, said department spokeswoman Jodi Miller. That's including the communities of Phelan, Lytle Creek, Wrightwood, Devore and Cajon Valley.

Even if those residents had heeded the call to leave, however, firefighters would have dropped the fire retardant and water in the same places, sent fire engines to protect homes and buildings in the same places, and sent hand crews to the same front lines, Opliger said. 

But the risk to firefighters — about 2,700 on peak days — was higher and created a higher potential for property loss because of the stay-behinds.

That is because the amount of firefighting equipment and personnel are limited resources, and when nearly a dozen other fires are burning in California, fire managers are in competition for all those engines and aircraft and people. During a busy fire season, they might not get everything they request.

The danger comes when equipment and resources are maxed out for a specific fire. Fire crews will always put protection of people over protection of property, and that can leave less-populated areas that were fully evacuated less protected — and more likely to burn.

However, Opliger does not want to give the impression that people who stay behind are somehow guaranteeing that their parcels will get better fire protection. At some point, they will have to weigh the risk to firefighters.

"The managers are going to have to make difficult decisions when we get into the scenario," he said. "Do we risk those responders just to save civilians that elected not to leave?"

Aside from putting out scolding messages in the news and social media about the burdens that holdouts place on firefighters and the heightened risks to residents, fire managers and law enforcement can't really do much to make people leave who don't want to.

Opliger said one tactic that seems to be persuasive is for survivors of close calls to share their stories of how they regret staying behind.