It turns out that the San Diego County sheriff may have spoken too fast when he blamed victims of the wild fires for their own deaths. “The majority of these deaths are caused by people trying to escape this fire and not following directions they are given,” said Sheriff Bill Kolender, in widely quoted comments from a Monday press conference. “When you are asked to leave, do it immediately. Do not wait.”
As a public-service pronouncement, Kolender’s remarks certainly stressed a vital point. And if he persuaded some die-hards to put down garden hoses and evacuate to safety, his emphasis may have saved lives.
But at the time, according to his own department, no one knew exactly what scenarios were responsible for killing the victims. Officials still did not have these details more than a day later.
Those who died “may or may not have been given evacuation orders,” said Chris Saunders, public-affairs officer for the sheriff’s department, in an interview. “We sent deputies out to as many areas as we could as quickly as we could. I don’t know if there are areas that we weren’t able to get to in time. We are more concerned right now with staying ahead of the fire and making sure people are removed from harm’s way.”
The press ran with Kolender’s comment — it was certainly one of the most quotable of the day. It became a piece of the complex, narrative mosaic assembled for the print coverage of the inferno. But for some TV news anchors, the premature conclusion became veritable received wisdom, and a few talk jockeys made it central to their rant of the day.
In the case of the first five fire victims whose names were released by officials, three of them, according to published reports, did not, in fact, die because they ignored orders to evacuate. The situation with the other two was not precisely known. And L.A. Times reporters found a canyon neighborhood that apparently got no advance warning — where four people died.
Clarity on what exactly did happen during the fast-moving and rapidly shifting firestorm was as murky as the cinder-filled air. “It’s possible the fire got ahead of us,” said spokesman Saunders. “As we do a review of the incidents, we will look at issues like that.”
He also cautioned that residents shouldn’t wait for official notification to get out: “We want people to use their good judgment. If they realize there is a fire in area, if they smell smoke, see smoke, see airplanes — we want them to make the decision on their own. Don’t wait for the sheriff’s unit to drive down the street” — especially because that notification, even if it happens, may come with only moments to spare.