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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Courageous or Foolish, a Few Refuse to Flee

October 29, 2003|Louis Sahagun, Rone Tempest and Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writers

Ordered to evacuate the tiny town of Rimforest, Michael Smith refused. Instead, the divorced father set out hoses and sprinklers on his wood-frame house.

"There comes a point," he said, "when someone just needs to fight back."

Tens of thousands of Californians on Tuesday crammed their cars with what they could and obeyed officials' orders to evacuate communities threatened by fires that have swept into six counties. But a handful of holdouts stayed behind to wage their own personal war, dousing the flames that endangered their houses.

"It's a big mistake," said Frank Beall, professor of wood science at UC Berkeley. "For the most part, people put themselves and the firefighters at risk."

Those rebels, experts say, draw firefighters' efforts away from saving homes and instead force them to protect individuals. They can also clog roads with last-minute escapes, inadvertently slowing or even blocking firetrucks.

In Rimforest, a tiny town of 850 leaning on the edge of the San Bernardino Mountains, flames engulfed more than 20 homes and businesses and ambushed a fire crew Tuesday. "We just hunkered down and prayed for the best," said Capt. Eric Thompson of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Smith, who had chosen to protect his alpine-style house, was on his own.

At one point, he said, flames barreled toward his home from two directions. Smith thought about fleeing on his motorcycle. But he stayed.

"Trees were exploding like bombs," said Smith, who installs air conditioning and heating equipment. "When you are all alone in something like that, it gets really scary."

Four houses across the street, Smith's closest neighbors, burned down. Smith's home was saved. And he was safe.

He got lucky, some experts say.

The decision to stay should be made case by case, said William Teie, a former state deputy director of fire protection.

Under some circumstances, able-bodied individuals can protect their homes, said Teie, who nevertheless advised following the orders of law enforcement officials. Teie points to a successful program in Australia, implemented after an educational campaign instructing homeowners on how to battle fires. With no such educational efforts here, staying is a much riskier proposition, he said.

Dave McLaughlin ignored orders to leave Monday during an evacuation of the Indian Springs and Indian Creek housing developments in Chatsworth. While a cavalcade of luxury cars and sport utility vehicles sped out of the neighborhoods north of the Ronald Reagan Freeway, McLaughlin and his son Eric remained behind.

When stray embers ignited the attic above his son's room, McLaughlin directed firefighters to the trouble. Crews opened an upstairs wall with a chain saw and squelched flames.

By staying, McLaughlin said, he rescued his house.

"The heat was absolutely incredible," said McLaughlin. "I saw embers landing on the windows."

Just north of Chatsworth and the Reagan Freeway, James C. Cotcher stood at a fork in the road at the entrance of Browns Canyon. Along one arm of the fork, fire crews were shin-deep in swirls of smoke. The other prong of the fork led to where Cotcher lived with his girlfriend and to the ranch where he worked.

Tuesday morning, as the fire raged, firefighters arrived with three trucks to protect the ranch. They ordered Cotcher out. He refused.

"You want to make sure that your stuff is all right," said Cotcher, 38. "Nobody takes care of you like you."

The motivation of holdouts varies. In Running Springs, eight miles east of Rimforest, the town was virtually empty as most residents honored the pleas of Highway Patrol officers and sheriff's deputies.

Mary Pat Schuster, 38, a substitute teacher, chose to stay. Despite an enormous cloud of smoke over the trees to the south of town, Schuster, a 10-year resident, believed authorities had exaggerated the threat. After all, an evacuation had been ordered last year and the fire had passed by the community.

Schuster spent part of Tuesday strolling through town, taking pictures of firefighters.

"Yes, there's no power, there are no newspapers or groceries here," she said, "but I'm not going to get upset until that smoke completely blocks out the sun."

Running Springs Fire Chief Bill Smith, who has fought fires in the region for more than 30 years, said such bravado was not uncommon.

After the fire missed the town last year, he said, "some people are now acting gutsy."

For Smith, those who refused to leave town only added to his list of worries. One physically disabled resident declined repeated pleas to evacuate Monday; one day later, when fires had begun to engulf the area, she changed her mind and authorities had to orchestrate the much more complicated endeavor of transporting her out.

Although law enforcement officials have the authority to ask people to leave, even in so-called mandatory evacuations they do not forcibly remove them except when they believe individuals are mentally incapacitated, said Dean Stufkosky, a San Bernardino County reserve sheriff's deputy.

"These people say it's their house and they're going to defend it," said Stufkosky. "I tell them they're becoming part of the problem because they become a hazard to firemen."

Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein and Nora Zamichow contributed to this report.

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