Why Some People Choose Not To Evacuate During Wildfires

Wednesday, December 27, 2017
By Maureen Cavanaugh, Michael Lipkin
Photo by Chris Carlson AP
Above: A firefighter snaps a quick picture amid efforts to contain the Thomas Fire in Montecito, Calif., earlier this month.

Light winds and chilly nighttime temperatures on Christmas day helped firefighters battle what is left of the Thomas Fire in Southern California. Now the largest wildfire in California history, the Thomas Fire was 89 percent contained as of Wednesday morning.

Thousands of people were under mandatory evacuation orders which were lifted last week. But not everyone who is ordered to leave their homes for their own safety evacuates.

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The U.S. Forest Service studies what causes some people to stay put in the face of a raging wildfire.

Sarah McCaffrey, a social science researcher for the USDA Forest Service studied the factors people rely on when deciding whether to evacuate.

"Official cues are critical to everyone. And that would be the mandatory evacuation order or an official saying that you should leave," McCaffrey said. "The people who leave early pretty much rely on the official cues. But what we found is that people who wait and see also rely on physical cues so they're looking at the flames or the smoke to sort of ascertain how much of a threat the fire is to them at that point."

McCaffrey said a lot of people do not understand just how fast a fire can travel in the right conditions.

McCaffrey joins Midday Edition on Wednesday to talk more about why some people choose not to evacuate during wildfires.