Heroic effort saves campers, staff at Circle V from Whittier Fire

Heroic effort saves campers, staff at Circle V from Whittier Fire

By Ray Ford

Noozhawk Outdoors Writer

When the initial call came in Saturday afternoon that a small fire had started near Camp Whittier, it wasn’t clear how serious the situation was.

Flames rage near the entrance to the Circle V Ranch Camp & Retreat Center Saturday afternoon. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

But within minutes, as the fire continued to spread rapidly uphill and in an easterly direction toward several local youth camps, it quickly transitioned to a life-and-death situation on July 8.

I arrived at the entrance to Camp Whittier, which is owned and operated by the United Boys and Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County, and another small camp known as Circle V Ranch Camp & Retreat Center at 2:12 p.m. Saturday, just 20 minutes after the fire broke out.

The scene was pure chaos. Cars were still driving through, engine crews were standing by awaiting orders, and not too far away, a thundering cloud of smoke and fire was rapidly moving diagonally to the southeast towards the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Not more than half a minute after I’d parked near a trailer loaded with a huge D-8 type dozer, a car came screaming down the road.

A young man jumped out, identified himself as a camp counselor and shouted to me, “We got kids trapped up at the camp. At least 20 of them, and the fire is right around where they are.”

I pointed him to a solitary Santa Barbara County Fire crew member standing not too far from me and told him, “He’s got the radio. Let him know that you need help right now.”

Heading up the canyon

At that point I headed up the dirt road he’d just come down, hoping to get an idea of how bad conditions were.

Circle V campers were evacuated and taken to Mission Santa Inés Saturday. (Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue Team photo)

Just as I did, a line of four small cars zoomed by filled with kids. It turned out later they were from Camp Whittier and with almost no spot to shelter in place there, they had made the decision to get out as fast as they could.

I continued past the turnoff to Camp Whittier and cautiously drove up the canyon to the turnoff to Larsen Meadow, which provided a good view of conditions in the canyon above me.

At the top of the meadow one outbuilding was fully engulfed in flames and another threatened. From my viewpoint, it looked like everything in the upper canyon was on fire.

Just then a propane tank blew up, not too far away, a signal that it was time for me to get out.

Circle V campers, counselors in danger

Circle V advertises itself as a camp and retreat center for youth and is committed to the growth and development of children through positive, meaningful and rewarding activities such as hiking, swimming and immersion in the natural world to build self-esteem and appreciation of others.

It was holding its holiday week summer camp, from July 5 to 10, when the fire started.

The camp is less than a mile from Camp Whittier, and is located near the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains in a thick covering of oak trees and light brush. Nearby are a swimming pool and small meadow but little open space to protect them from an approaching fire.

Unfortunately, it was coming directly at them.

After a pleasant morning at the camp, the 80 or so kids, counselors and other adults now had a serious problem: Their escape route out was down a mile section of 15-foot wide, twisting dirt road that would take them through a narrow section of the canyon, most of which was now on fire.

Nor did they have transportation to get that many people out in any case. They had no option but to remain at the camp and hope for the best.

Futile attempt to corral the fire

While Camp Whittier was frantically being evacuated, several engine crews headed to the fire front with the intent of trying to secure a line around the east and south edge of what had now been dubbed the Whittier Fire.

Supporting the engine crews was dozer operator Mark Linane, who was tasked with cutting a line up the ridge east of the camp so the crews could follow, laying a hose to cool things down.

“We worked frantically to make that happen,” County Deputy Fire Marshall Robby Hazard told me. “But it was just moving too fast.”

In less than an hour, it would be threatening the Circle V area.

Kids trapped in place

By 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Circle V was covered in smoke and the first flames were nearing the camp perimeter. The situation was turning extremely serious.

“We started hearing chatter on the radio that kids were trapped up at the Circle V Camp,” Linane said.

The decision was made to send Linane’s dozer up to the camp to clear out the road. He turned downhill and began to work his way up the access road to the camp, which was not much wider than his dozer blade.

He began clearing out the hundreds of boulders that had rolled down on the road, along with a number of sycamore branches, oak trees and brush that had fallen onto the road.

When he got to the camp, Linane realized there was barely enough open space outside the main building to declare it a safe zone.

“There was about a 50-foot by 50-foot area covered by artificial grass and not much else,” he said.

Though the fire still hadn’t reached the camp, the smoke was everywhere. The kids huddled inside a building as the fire grew closer and closer.

Given the road conditions, where any tree could come down and trap them in the middle of the canyon, it was clear the kids, counselors, Linane and several engine crews would need to shelter in place as best they could.

Fortunately, at the point when conditions were getting extreme, air support in the form of retardant drops cooled down the perimeter and provided a measure of safety — but there was no guarantee that would not change.

Despite the severity of the situation and the need to evacuate, that would be impossible until the fire passed through the lower canyon.

As it turned out, the next hour and a half may have been the longest any of the kids had ever spent in their lives.

Search and Rescue team responds

It had already been a long day for the Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue Team.

Many of the team members had spent the previous night evacuating people from the Tepusquet Road area for the Alamo Fire.

While on the way home, they got the call to assist with possible evacuations of homes in the Paradise Road and Painted Cave Road area off Highway 154.

But within minutes, they were diverted back to the Whittier Fire perimeter, staging at the entrance to Live Oak Camp, awaiting for conditions to get right before heading up to the Circle V area.

“The big question was how to get that many kids out of there,” SAR lead Nelson Trichler explained to me.

A caravan of Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue Team vehicles evacuates campers and staff from Circle V Saturday afternoon. Click to view larger

A caravan of Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue Team vehicles evacuates campers and staff from Circle V Saturday afternoon.  (Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue Team photo)

“The original goal was to have two large Chumash vans head up there, but that wasn’t practical given their size, so we decided that we should take our vehicles up and bring the kids down, even if that meant taking several trips.”

With several team trucks that included passenger vans and 4×4 SUVs, the SAR team members started to work their way up the road to the Circle V camp.

“About halfway up to the camp, a burned-out tree came down right in front of the van I was driving,” Trichler said.

“That separated us from two of our vehicles that had just driven through a minute before. We were able to squeeze one more vehicle around it so they could head up to the camp.”

The rest of the SAR team was tasked with clearing out the branches blocking the road. Grabbing handsaws, a chainsaw and a battery-operated sisal, they got most of it off to the side of the road and were able to continue on.

A quarter-mile later they came across a second tree that they had to cut out of the way before proceeding any further.

“Finally we got to the camp,” Trichler added. “We passed by one outbuilding that had flames licking up the side of it, which kind of concerned me, but just then a helicopter dropped on it, thankfully.”

Heading out

By the time Trichler’s van reached the main building, he was amazed to see how quickly the kids had been prepared to head down canyon.

“No one was panicking, the counselors had them lined up in a queue in groupings of five. I said I could take 10 so two of the groups along with counselors hopped in,” he said.

Others packed into the second van and other vehicles. “We lined up the vehicles so we could go all together,” Trichler said.

While the kids and counselors were loading, Linane, the dozer operator, headed down the road to clear out any more fallen trees or other obstacles.

Even with Linane’s support, the drive down was kind of risky. Though the road was clear, a number of spot fires had started in the few minutes after the drive up to the camp.

“The caravan of vehicles worked our way down the road, being careful that the one in front and the one in back was always in sight,”​ Trichler said. “At one point the flames were close enough you could feel the heat even with the windows rolled up. And as we approached Larsen Meadow we could see a number of burned out structures. All that was left were the chimneys.

“Despite everything, the kids were great,” he added. “They were quiet, composed and never panicked. It really helped that the counselors had arranged things so that there was at least one of them in each of the vehicles.”

As the caravan reached the turnoff to the meadow they caught up with Linane’s dozer, following it the last half mile down to Highway 154.

Within minutes, the 80 or so kids, counselors and other adults had been transferred into the Chumash vans and the harrowing 2- to 3-hour ordeal was over.

They were taken to Mission Santa Inés and reunited with their families, and no injuries were reported in the rescue, according to fire officials.

“It’s almost unspeakable to think about what could have happened if things didn’t go as well as they did,” County Fire Chief Eric Peterson told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

“It’s clear that people did very heroic things back there.”

Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford has been hiking, backpacking and bicycling in the Santa Barbara area since the 1970s. He is a longtime local outdoors columnist, author and photographer. His previous work can be seen at his website, Santa Barbara Outdoors. E-mail him at rford@noozhawk.com. Follow him on Twitter @riveray.