Tough Lessons from Napa Residents & Police Officers

Fire season is approaching again, and the people of California's wine country are already tense.

Less than a year ago, the brutal wildfires that tore through Napa and Sonoma killed dozens of residents, with hundreds more left trapped and requiring evacuation. Thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, and the community hasn't fully recovered.

Mercury News recently released a clip of body cam footage from last October depicting officers' desperate attempts to rescue people trapped by the fires. The listener can feel their disbelief as they pass by people who are able-bodied but voluntarily stayed behind.

Unfortunately, that's more common than you might think. Police reports and 911 calls from that night revealed that dozens of residents who could have evacuated chose to stay...even as the flames were already consuming their homes. Armed with nothing but a hose, many of these families waited until the last moment to come to their senses.

Why People Don't Evacuate

What drives people to stay in the face of certain danger? It's not heroism—for the most part, it's convenience. Studies indicate that people choose to stay when influenced by factors like age, lack of information, and pets. Stubbornness is also a factor, although people are more likely to leave when emergency services use the word "mandatory."

In one family's case, they stayed because they didn't realize how bad things had gotten—they didn't know the fire had jumped the freeway and were not ordered to leave. In another situation, residents of a retirement community were left behind by staff while two buildings were already on fire. Many of them were asleep as officers arrived to rescue them.

Some people were unable to evacuate. At least 5 people died in the fires because their electric-powered garages were closed when the power went out. These people either didn't know how or didn't have the physical strength to open the garage door manually, trapping their cars in their homes. Officers found themselves saving lives simply by showing people how to open the garage door.

The Mercury News report offers these lessons for homeowners:

  • Always evacuate as soon as you are able.
  • Know how to open your garage without power.
  • For seniors: confirm that your living facility has an evacuation plan.

If you lost your home in the Napa wildfires, Arnold & Itkin has been helping families get the resources they need to rebuild. Call us at (888) 493-1629 or contact us with our short online form if you need relief.

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