Santa Barbara County emergency officials deciding to revise evacuation rules following a major disaster may seem like closing the barn door after the animals have fled the scene, but it actually makes good sense.

First, and perhaps foremost, humans are inherently hopeful and optimistic. Even armed with the knowledge that bad things can and do happen, people tend to look on the bright side.

Well, that’s what most of us do. There is that small group of folks who always see the glass as being half-empty. That, too, is part of human nature.

The major disaster in question was actually two disasters. First, the Thomas fire destroyed thousands of acres of trees and undergrowth in the hills above Montecito. Then came torrential rains, sending walls of mud and debris from the burned-out zone down into the seaside village. The death toll was staggeringly high, considering that folks in the slide’s path had been warned, and were asked to evacuate.

Too many did not heed that advice, and paid with their lives — which helped prod county emergency officials to re-evaluate procedures.

Basically, county officials last week announced creation of a new interactive risk-assessment map, and evacuation notices are now divided into three categories that will no longer use the term “voluntary.”

In other words, when the county issues an evacuation order in those zones, it will be an order in the classic sense, not a request.

Such do-it-our-way government regulations will rub many Americans the wrong way. While generally optimistic, we also tend toward not liking being told what to do with our lives.

But in this case, following such orders is probably a very good idea. While it is your right in a free society to make your own choices, mostly, it is also smart to listen to experts when it comes to evaluating the level of personal risk. That is especially true when the risk is of a sort that threatens bodily harm, and even death.

Part of last week’s announcement included county officials urging residents living near the burn areas of the Alamo, Sherpa, Whittier and Thomas fires to prepare evacuation plans in case another big storm strikes, bringing with it the possibility of catastrophic mud slides filled with debris.

One problem in the recent Montecito slide disaster was that while weather experts predicted a good-sized storm, they didn’t expect the pin-point cloud bursts that sent the wall of mud and debris into the village. Perhaps the suggestion to evacuate was ignored by so many because of the low level of official concern.

That’s another thing to think about. Everyone knows California is capable of delivering some devastating blows. We have it all — drought, wildfires, mudslides, earthquakes, civil unrest, etc.

The county’s new emergency protocol will include an evaluation of anticipated risk, which should help residents undecided about bolting make the right decision.

Sheriff Bill Brown said it best: “Don’t wait for a knock on your door from a sheriff's deputy or member of Search and Rescue.”

Because in many cases, that might be too late.

Even with all that, county officials say leaving or staying is still up to the individual resident. But if you choose to ignore a mandatory evacuation order, you may also have to wait for emergency assistance after the disaster passes — assuming you are still alive.

Humans create rules for a reason, at least that’s usually the case. In this evacuation protocol, the reason is to help you stay alive and healthy.

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