Mandatory Fire Evacuations: Deciding to stay or go

Evacuation orders have sent thousands of people fleeing from fast-moving wildfires in California, from Lake County down to San Bernadino County.

Often it comes down to a split second decision of whether to stay and try to protect your property or leave and find shelter away from the fire zones.

Over the years, some people have been successful in surviving fires.

In Lake County this week, one man said he saved his home by staying to protect his property. He used a tractor to dig fire lines around his property, something that is not uncommon in this rural area where residents have farms and heavy equipment.

"The reason I stayed was the reason we're still here We didn't burn you'll notice, it went around us," he said.

Cal Fire Division Chief Geoff Belyea says he understands people want to protect their property, and he decides whether to order an evacuation based on what he would do if his own family were living in a home or neighborhood affected by fire.

But Chief Belyea and other veteran firefighters say that ignoring evacuation orders could be deadly, especially this year with the explosive and unpredictable fires that many veteran firefighters say are the worst they've ever seen.

Residents who decide to stay and try and fight the fire could find themselves trapped later, and trying to take shelter in a swimming pool or green space could be insufficient to save lives.

"The pool may be safe area where it's not going to burn, but the air around is super-heated from all the gases from the fire and you still have to breathe and a lot of times those super-heated gases cause significant damage to your lungs," Cheif Belyea said.

"If they stay and they wait, it may be too late. We may not be able to get in there and get to them to rescue them," he said.

If people do stay and need assistance, it also can take away valuable crews from the front line or put other people's lives at risk.

"So then we have to redirect resources away from actually putting the fire out and have to go in and try to effect a rescue," Chief Belyea added.

Six firefighters were trapped by flames in the southern California Bluecut fire, while trying to protect residents of one home who refused to leave.

Right now, every crew counts in a state where Cal Fire officials say there have been one hundred more wildfires so far this year, than the same time last year.

Cal Fire Chief Belyea adds that those who ignore evacuation orders and then try to escape fire at the last minute could find it impossible to escape.

"The smoke may completely obscure your vision to where you can't even see the road any more because of a sudden wind shift so there are a lot of different things that could take your one route or your one route that is your safe way and compromise it," he said.

In California there is no law forcing someone to follow an evacuation order. It is a judgement call, and one which Cal Fire officials hope people will give a great deal of thought.

For information on how to prepare for an evacuation click here for the Cal Fire evacuation guide: