The first thing you noticed at the Friday afternoon press conference was the size of the Whittier Fire camp. It stretched the length of Dos Pueblos High School up in the foothills of Goleta outside Santa Barbara. A village of pup tents had sprung up, but no one was coming in or out of them. Were these firefighters inside sleeping or out on the fire lines?
There were banks of white trailers, lime-green U.S. Forest Service trucks, a line of porta potties and lots of vans. It must have been some of these vans that brought the 82 camper kids (many from inner-city homes), counselors and staff out of Circle V Ranch Camp. Forest Service commanders, fire chiefs and a local sheriff talked about the bravery of Forest Service patrolman Dave Dahlberg and Santa Barbara County Firefighter Mark Linane. Dahlberg made it into the camp — sponsored by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Los Angeles Council — over a 1 1/2-mile bumpy road of dirt and asphalt, when two previous tries by sheriff deputies had been driven back by flames and falling trees. Later, Linane drove a bulldozer to clear away the road for everyone to escape.
Flanked by U.S. and California flags, along with enlarged photos of the fire and geographic maps, leaders of the first responders spoke in no-nonsense tones. Steve Oaks, Santa Barbara County Fire Division Chief, was the only one to crack a smile. “I told them at camp that we’re all leaving together with the head of a snake, a yellow bulldozer, leading us,” he said, standing at a wood podium outside the high school.
Miraculously, really, no camper or counselor was hurt. Out on Route 154, the young campers were taken by buses offered by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, to Old Mission Santa Ines about 13 miles away.
“Everyone is safe! That is such a blessing,” said David Fields, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Los Angeles. “Yes, we did lose our craft shack cabin and our health office cabin in the fire. Our water treatment facility and pipes are also seriously damaged, requiring months of repairs, so we had to cancel the remaining sessions of our 2017 Circle V summer camp.
“We will rebuild and welcome donations to help with this effort,” he added. “On behalf of all of us at St. Vincent de Paul and our beautiful Circle V Ranch Camp, thank you and God bless.”
Donations to help rebuild the camp and provide “camperships” (scholarships) for future sessions can be made online at https://svdpla.org/donate/rebuild-camp/