At the height of evacuations Tuesday morning in San Diego County, officials said nearly 350,000 households had received automated emergency phone calls warning them to evacuate. Using 2000 census data, emergency response officials estimated that they had ordered 513,000 of the county's 3.1 million people out of their homes and advised 12,000 more to leave.
That pattern is one of several reasons why the widely publicized estimates of evacuation numbers are probably exaggerated.
Another reason is that not everyone obeyed evacuation orders.
Authorities cannot force people from their homes, although they can prevent them from returning once they leave. For those who leave, there is no central registry, meaning that official counts of evacuees are guesses based on population data.
On Monday, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department patrol cars drove along High Sierra Trail north of Saugus, blaring mandatory evacuation orders. Within minutes, many residents said they planned to stay.
"It's better now than it was last night," said Beth Kray. The fire, she said, had been "on the ridge right behind. We couldn't get a wink of sleep."
San Diego's sprawling Scripps Ranch development was another place where fire-tested residents weighed their options. Some neighborhoods emptied out nearly completely, with residents clogging traffic as a few die-hards remained to guard their homes. On other blocks, as many as half the residents stayed, according to neighbors. Four years ago, hundreds of homes in the development were lost in the massive Cedar fire.
On one stretch of Loire Avenue, a man whose home burned to the ground in the Cedar fire wasted no time packing up. A neighbor a few doors down, whose roof caught fire last time, stayed put.
"In 2003, we saw our house burning on television," said Paul Devincenzo, who stayed overnight at another residence he owns in the city. He returned to Scripps Ranch on Tuesday afternoon. "This time we evacuated with mixed feelings. You know the danger of staying behind, but you also want to stay and do something to save your house."
Dick Curtis, 71, said he and several neighbors on Crystal Oaks Way in Scripps Ranch decided to stay until the flames came too close for comfort, rather than venture to unknown territory at Qualcomm Stadium.
Curtis, who has a respiratory condition, said the air was better inside his house than it would have been in the parking lot of the stadium or at other locations.
"We agreed to all leave en masse at the first sign of sirens," he said. "And for anybody who was asleep, we were going to bang on doors and honk our horns." The sirens, however, were silent.
In addition to the San Diego County evacuations, Orange County ordered 43,000 residents from their homes. In Los Angeles County, Sheriff Lee Baca said a total of 21,500 residents were told to evacuate. In San Bernardino, officials ordered 15,000 to leave their homes.
Numerous news organizations, including The Times, had estimated the total number evacuated at more than 800,000, with many outlets placing the number displaced at 1 million. Some San Diego officials have made the comparison to the Gulf Coast's mass evacuation when Hurricane Katrina struck two years ago, when 1.2 million left Greater New Orleans ahead of the approaching storm, according to a study by Louisiana State University.
"We've evacuated more people than were evacuated in Katrina," San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender said Wednesday.
That statement now seems imprecise.
Transportation analysts for the Automobile Club of Southern California said that because evacuation orders were issued over a period of days, it was unlikely that half a million people were moving all at once.