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Defiant residents refuse to leave homes

Fire officials warn they could cause loss of homes – and actions could prove fatal

Posted: July 27, 2016 8:53 p.m.
Updated: July 27, 2016 8:53 p.m.
Sheriff's deputies block access to Iron Canyon, where a man's body was found burned last weekend after he disregarded a firefighter's urging to leave the area as the Sand fire neared. Signal photo by Austin Westfall Sheriff's deputies block access to Iron Canyon, where a man's body was found burned last weekend after he disregarded a firefighter's urging to leave the area as the Sand fire neared. Signal photo by Austin Westfall
Sheriff's deputies block access to Iron Canyon, where a man's body was found burned last weekend after he disregarded a firefighter's urging to leave the area as the Sand fire neared. Signal photo by Austin Westfall
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Staying behind during a wildfire-mandated evacuation could cost you your own home, or cost your neighbor his home, authorities said this week as the Sand fire forced mass evacuations in the Santa Clarita Valley.

“Our primary mission is to protect your life. So if your life is being threatened then we have to save your life – before we protect your home,” Fire Department spokesman Justin Correll said Wednesday.

Residents who drag their feet when ordered to leave, or who out-and-out refuse to leave as hundreds of residents did this week, impede firefighters in their effort to protect property, the county’s top firefighter said.

Three days into the fire, after sweeping evacuation orders were given for Sand Canyon, Fire Department Chief Daryl L. Osby said firefighters were frustrated that many residents chose to ignore mandatory evacuations and remain home until it was too late to leave.

“(Firefighters) felt they lost additional structures because they had to stop what they were doing to help citizens evacuate,” said Osby.

Over the course of the nearly week-long fire, residents of Sand Canyon, Placerita Canyon, Fair Oaks Ranch, Soledad Canyon and Agua Dulce have been ordered to evacuate due to the Sand fire.

But however strident the mandate to leave, firefighters or sheriff’s deputies carrying out those evacuation orders cannot physically grab defiant homeowners and carry them from the premises.

Residents are not breaking the law if they stay at home and cannot be charged with a crime, Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station sergeant said Wednesday. “It’s just a recommendation,” he said.

An estimated 10,000 homes were ordered evacuated during the Sand fire, and hundreds of residents defied those order.

Deadly risk
One of them was Robert Bresnick, 67, who refused to come to firefighters when ordered to do so Saturday afternoon as the Sand fire bore down on Iron Canyon, a neighborhood off Sand Canyon in Canyon Country.

Firefighters called to Bresnick’s companion, Donna Fink, to leave her house and come with them – and she complied, said Sheriff’s Department homicide Lt. Joe Mendoza.

“A separate firefighter saw Mr. Bresnick and called out to him, but Mr. Bresnick was quite a distance away. He said something back to the firefighter and walked away,” Mendoza said. He was apparently searching for the couple’s dogs.

His burned body was found in a car a ways down the driveway of the couple’s North Iron Canyon Road home.

On Sunday the Sand Canyon residents who got out of the area as directed were not allowed back into their homes, but several Sand Canyon residents were traveling around the neighborhood in golf carts.

“A whole lot of people decided to leave, and that’s OK. But we decided to stay,” Sand Canyon resident Jim Dematte said, his arm resting on a AR-15 assault rifle.

“We’re trying to keep the whole place safe,” he said. About the firearm he added: “It’s just protection, and that’s all it is.”

Derek Hunt, owner of Sable Ranch at near the corner of Sand and Placerita canyon roads, also stayed behind as the Sand fire headed toward his movie ranch Saturday.

“It was pretty crazy. It was a firestorm and it came over the mountain like a raging train,” he said.

“We never left,” Hunt said Monday. “We pretty much wanted to stay and fight for it,” he said, thanking those – including Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar – for helping his efforts to protect his property.

Defiant ayor
“I didn’t ignore the evacuation order,” Kellar told The Signal Wednesday. “I was in and out of there. In fact, I was in there as much as I was out.”

Kellar said he manned a water hose during the fight to save Sable Ranch, doing what he could to help a friend.

“Listen, I’m trying to coordinate help efforts where they’re needed,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to do anything if I wasn’t keeping my finger on the pulse of things. It’s my responsibility as mayor.

“I have a right to go across lines and help to do the best I can,” he said.

United front
The day after Bresnick’s death, a phalanx of city, county, fire and law enforcement officials held a news conference, representatives of each agency stressing the importance of people following evacuation orders. Kellar stood among them, though he didn’t speak.

County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich told reporters: “I want to commend the men and women who are fighting this fire. They deserve our full support, and that means listening to them when they say to evacuate. We don’t want to lose any more lives like we did yesterday.”

“It does impact the job of saving houses,” Fire Department Inspector Joe Marron said of residents refusing to evacuate. “It’s a big fire and it just takes a couple of minutes. It always helps if people listen to us.”

How do firefighters feel when, while risking their lives to save homes, they encounter residents who refused to leave?

“It is aggravating,” Fire Department Inspector Chris Reade said. “But if I was in their shoes, I would probably do the same thing. You can’t take it personal.”

[email protected]
661-287-5527
on Twitter @jamesarthurholt

 

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