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Why so many refuse to evacuate as wildfires approach

Residents near the Wrightwood area and Lone Pine Canyon Road are watching the Blue Cut fire closely.

Trucks and SUVs hurtled out of the canyons in clouds of dust, loaded to the headliners with keepsakes and valuables, towing ATVs and old Jeeps.

As if there weren't enough smoke in the air, Leo Paguin took a drag from a cigarette and watched his neighbors flee.

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"Those are the smart ones, I guess," he said.

Paguin, 66, with a deep-creased desert face and grizzled gray beard, watched the black smoke rise from the mountains a mile away from his little house in Pinon Hills.

All day Wednesday, unstable winds twisted flames into fiery tornadoes as the Blue Cut fire tore through 30,000 acres of dry foothill and desert vegetation. Officials kept Interstate 15 — a major artery into Southern California — closed for more than a day and ordered an estimated 80,000 people to evacuate.

But many, like Paguin, refused to go, much to fire officials' chagrin.

Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, warned that people misjudge how suddenly fires can be upon them, leaving no time or route to escape.

"The way the fires are moving in this drought-stricken state, they are more explosive, and they move much quicker through the dry vegetation. So the danger is increased," Tolmachoff said.

There is no doubt that residents who have ignored evacuation orders have saved homes, putting out smoldering embers with a garden hose or summoning firefighters to a burning house. But the risk is extreme. And firefighters may have to risk their lives to save those trapped in a conflagration.

Even the slightest hesitation with deciding whether to evacuate can mean the difference between life and death.

"People that evacuate late in a fire when the fire is reaching them are the most vulnerable to being killed," said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley. "Most people underestimate the fury that comes."

People here in the high, wind-raked valleys cleaved by the San Andreas fault can be a stubborn, independent sort. And living in the scrublands, they have dealt with fire before.

They take into account what authorities tell them to do, but can smell a whiff of overcautiousness as much as other people smell the smoke.

Paguin, who stays at the house as a handyman, said he'd stay to put out any spot fires from wind-borne embers that can reach far beyond the flame front.

"There is no way I'm leaving this place without trying as hard as I can to save it — I'd feel guilty the rest of my life," he said. "I owe it to the property owner, who has personal treasures, collected over many years here. "

He held up a football-sized chunk of agate. "Things like this beautiful rock, pieces of petrified wood and a collection of old grammar school textbooks."

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He said he'd leave only if the flames were roaring through his chain-link fence.

"When it gets that close, I'll fill a sack with my credit cards, my cold beers, some dog bones and a roll of toilet paper and start walking down Highway 138," Paguin said.

On the other side of the Cajon Pass in Lytle Creek, Cheryl Anaya, 67, pledged Tuesday to stay as long as possible to protect her two-story log cabin and other homes in the neighborhood.

On Wednesday afternoon, she had kept to that pledge, even as firefighters fought to protect homes just across the road.

"We're still holding our own," she said in a phone interview.

The night before, she said, it looked like the fire was calming down.

"We slept so good," she said. "Then we woke up to helicopters and planes because it broke out again."

Earlier in the afternoon, she said, she and others in the neighborhood stopped a man trying to steal a rifle and other items from a neighbor's house. They called 911, but weren't expecting deputies to come around.

"We're not even supposed to be here," she said. "We'll go when we have to."

In the mountain community of Wrightwood, Angela Adams, 48, was a bit more cautious.  She warily watched the flames on Circle Mountain a mile east of her home.

"I don't like this view at all," she said.

But she planned to stay until the fire got closer. Her firefighter friends were updating her on the blaze. She wanted to make sure homes belonging to the families who left weren't broken into.

But her main reason to stay was more emotional. She did not want to leave the snowboards, skateboards, hats and clothes that belonged to her 17-year-old son, who died in a solo car accident in March. She said he swerved to avoid hitting a person who was crossing the highway at night.

"I just needed more time to pack," she said. "I just have to have his stuff."

On a hillside in Wild Horse Canyon, near the intersection of Highways 138 and 2, a group of neighbors watched as a large plume of smoke billowed nearby and discussed when they would leave.

Gilbert De Leon, his brother and several family members, including an 87-year-old grandmother, have lived in the area for several years, enough to have already survived a number of fires — including one that came dangerously close to his backyard several years ago.

That time, he said, he'd stuck around until firefighters arrived and set up to protect his home.

This time, the family was staying put, at least for the time being, on Wednesday afternoon.

"I'll leave when I see flames coming over that hill," De Leon said, pointing nearby.

He owns his home outright and doesn't have fire insurance, he said.

"I'm one of those guys," he said. "I should have got it a lot earlier."

Before he leaves, he wants to douse the home with a hose to protect it as much as possible. But he said he wasn't sticking around just to save his property.

"If it burns, it burns," he said.

as of Aug. 19 Detailed Los Angeles Riverside Sources: San Bernardino County Sheriff, Inciweb, Cal Fire, Mapbox, OpenStreetMap @latimesgraphics Blue Cut fire Mandatory evacuation Heat perimeter Shelters San Bernardino County Fairgrounds Sultana High School Apple Valley Animal Shelter Devore Animal Shelter Jessie Turner Center 210 18 215 Main St. Lytle Creek Fire origin 5 MILES Wrightwood San Bernardino 15 138

His main reason for staying as the fire appeared ever closer was simple:

"Nobody wants to be displaced," he said. "Not until you have to."

Even though he's been through a number of fires, this one was different. "This is bad. It's one of the worst I've seen here," he said.

As he spoke, a neighbor who was driving down the hill stopped to offer a warning.

From his home near the top, the neighbor said, he could see flames coming over a ridge.

"You can see that thing glowing on the other side now," he said. "Just point your vehicles ready to go out."

Gigi Marek and her son were carrying groceries out of a Stater Bros. in Phelan on Wednesday morning. Pale brown smoke clouded the sky and ash trickled onto her hair and clothes.

They had evacuated their home in Wrightwood on Tuesday evening and come to Phelan to stay with Marek's mother-in-law.

But Marek's husband and adult daughter had chosen to stay behind, even after a sheriff's deputy knocked on their door at about 8 p.m. and told them they should go.

Marek's husband, a retired Los Angeles  city firefighter, told her the wind wasn't blowing in the right direction to affect their home, but Marek was concerned.

"I'm worried for them," she said. "I think they should get out of there. But I trust his judgment."

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But as she packed her groceries into her SUV, she said she really wanted them to go.

"The wind can change so fast," she said. "He's the one that's always telling me that."

Times staff writers Shane Newell, Paloma Esquivel and Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.

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