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Wildfire Holdouts Are Warned

A sign warns of high fire danger as people walk along Lake Drive in the San Bernardino Mountain community of Crestline, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2004.
AP
As wildfires ravaged the mountains east of Los Angeles last fall, not everyone joined the tens of thousands of evacuees who fled clutching pets, photos and heirlooms.

Scores of residents ignored mandatory evacuation orders so they could defend their homes, while dozens of others looted, watched the fires or just meandered around this and other pine-studded hamlets.

They were more than a nuisance, according to officials in the San Bernardino Mountains. By distracting manpower from firelines and safety patrols, they created a hazard that the local sheriff's deputies warns won't be tolerated this fire season.

Deputies are advising residents that if tinder-dry hillsides again burst into flames, they'll use revised guidelines under which they could arrest evacuation laggards who are not defending their homes, shutter stores and seek overnight curfews. In response, many locals who stuck around last year say they won't comply with rules they call tyrannical.

"The only way to get me off this mountain is feet first," said Bill Madsen, a bartender at the Stockade Grub and Whiskey, a memento-crammed saloon and restaurant. "Let them take their best shot, but it's going to take a lot of them."

Definitive figures on previous arrests or deaths during evacuations are hard to tally because they involve so many state, county and city agencies, said John Peabody of the Emergency Management Institute, a federal training center in Maryland.

Aware that holdouts can obstruct authorities during disasters, states including Florida and Alabama empower authorities to charge them with misdemeanors. Often, however, emergency officials are too overwhelmed - or hesitant - to apply existing statutes during a crisis, according to Peabody.

That's not likely in the San Bernardino Mountains, authorities promise.

Last year, more than 150,000 acres were blackened and 1,075 homes destroyed in and around the mountains, said county Fire Department spokeswoman Tracey Martinez. In all, Southern California's devastating wildfires charred 750,000 acres while killing 24 people and destroying more than 3,670 homes and businesses.

Conditions haven't improved.

"One of the things we really discussed was to ensure that we really enforce our evacuation proclamation, just because conditions are worse this year," said San Bernardino County Sheriff's Capt. John Hernandez.

Evacuating the populous mountains is an enormous task. Towns of urban refugees and longtime hillside denizens checker ridges and canyons brimming with cedar, fir and pine. The population can swell to 90,000 when people come up for holidays, Martinez said.

Despite its sprawl and rugged terrain, the region was evacuated with few injuries last year. At least nine people were arrested on suspicion of looting and later convicted while 12 were escorted down the mountain, Hernandez said.

Authorities declined to release the region's evacuation plan, saying it is for internal use only. But according to informal guidelines, law enforcement could more rigorously "challenge" - that is, arrest or escort - anyone caught roaming evacuated areas, said Dennis Tilton, legal counsel for the sheriff's department and a deputy district attorney.

Those arrested for sticking around without defending their home could face a misdemeanor that carries up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Arrests would be a last resort, officials said.

Unlike last year, authorities might ask county officials to impose dusk-til-dawn curfew, which could bring another misdemeanor charge if violated, Tilton said.

Finally, shops and restaurants would be urged to close as a way of limiting the options of anyone who remains at home. Some merchants have already been contacted, officials said.

That would mark a shift from last year, when a handful of businesses stayed open during the fires despite blanket orders to clear out.

The Stockade Grub and Whiskey attracted residents and some firefighters with chicken pot pie and warm beer - the freezer didn't work once the power failed.

Madsen said his bar served a valuable function as a meeting place and clearing house for accurate information about the fires.

"Instead of saying it's our way or the highway," he said, "they should work with us."

By Jeremiah Marquez