With his semi-spiked blondish-brown hair, Dave Dahlberg doesn’t exactly look like an official U.S. Forest Service hero. Don’t tell that to the 58 kids and 24 staff members and counselors at the Circle V Ranch Camp he helped rescue July 8, hours after the Whittier Fire in the Los Padres National Forest started in Santa Barbara County. The fire would go on to burn more than 24,000 acres and at least 17 homes, causing the evacuation of 2,600 people. At its peak, more than 2,100 firefighters were working the fire lines.
Fortunately, there wasn’t a single serious injury or death.
The Forest Service patrolman, known as “Patrol 37,” was the only first responder to make it all the way up the mile-plus, dirt-and-cracked asphalt, 15-foot-wide road to the camp. Flames were springing up on both sides, tree branches crashing down, and smoke so thick he could barely see where he was driving.
But Patrol 37 had an edge.
When asked by a TV reporter at a press conference a few days later how he ever made it to the camp, the husky young man simple replied, “Ah, training,” with a quick chuckle. And then explained how years ago he took a Forest Service “crew boss” type class. And one of the exercises was going out to Circle V where there was actually a simulated fire between Highway 154 and the camp — exactly what happened on July 8.
“And our access was cut off,” he pointed out. “So it really was the training.”
On a hot Saturday afternoon at 1:42 p.m., some concerned citizens reported the fire starting near the entrance to another kids’ camp called “Whittier” near the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area.
Shortly after it was reported, personnel from the U.S. Forest Service, Santa Barbara County Fire Department and Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene. The fire, meanwhile, was racing uphill. Cars from Whittier and Circle V were self-evacuating. But U.S. Forest Service Incident Commander Mark Von Tillow learned that 82 young campers and adults were still at Circle V. And now they were trapped.
At 2:30 p.m., a sheriff’s deputy named Dave Wicklund made the first desperate try to drive up the narrow road, but was turned back by flames and falling debris. Fifteen minutes later, deputies in eight patrol cars led by Sgt. Neil Gowing made another attempt. They got closer to the camp but also had to turn back.
“There was lots of debris, trees falling down on the road,” Gowing pointed out at an outdoor press conference on July 14 at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, which had become the Whittier Fire command post. Off to his side was a village of firefighters’ pup tents, firetrucks and rescue vehicles. “We made it up about a mile to an area of vegetation that had not burnt through yet, and we stopped to evaluate if we should continue. But in seconds, shrubbery and trees were engulfed in flames, and the road was covered. So we couldn’t get our vehicles up to the kids.”
After finishing his account, he added, “All I can really tell you guys is that I’ve been doing this for 15 years and I’ve been involved in multiple fires, multiple evacuations. This is probably the most intense fire I’ve had break out in a highly populated area where there were so many people we had to get out in such a short time. I think the only reason that we were successful in making sure that no one was injured or killed was because of the cooperation between our agencies. It was, honestly, amazing to see.”
Dave Dahlberg, the forest service patrolman who did make it up to the camp, said he got his marching orders from Forest Service Commander Von Tillow and Santa Barbara County Fire Division Chief Steve Oaks. Oaks said he walked up to the driver’s window of Patrol 37 to have a “face-to-face” conversation.
“I remember thinking how young he seemed, so I was very clear with my instructions,” Oaks recalled. “I said, ‘I’m evacuation group [commander]. You’re working for me. I need you to make access to the camp, kid. Keep them calm. And let them know we’re coming to get them out.’
“Then I asked, ‘Are we good?’ And he acknowledged.”
Dalhberg said matter of factly, “I needed to get up the hill to assess the situation of the camp. And I knew that there were these kids up there. So I was able to make access into the camp through all the smoke and flame, and all the debris on the road. It was tough at some points. Smoke covered the entire road. But I was able to make it.
“When I got up there, I met with Ray Lopez, who is the camp leader. And he immediately asked if we could get out. And I told him the road was very unsafe and that we are going to stay in place. And I worked with Ray and the other counselors to keep them calm, because that would keep the kids calm. I reassured them that we were in a safe place and that we could all get out safely.”
Then they did a head count.
“It seemed like minutes, but it was probably closer to two hours when I first saw County Dozer One arrive at the camp,” Dahlberg went on. “We [Santa Barbara County Firefighter Mark Linane] spoke immediately, and he started fire lines around the camp. And during this time, there were a lot of helicopters and air tankers that were making drops just below the camp where we could see the flaming front of the fire moving towards us.”
Search and rescue
After another hour, the cavalry arrived: a caravan from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s search and rescue team. Search and Rescue Incident Commander Nelson Trichler said it only took his team 20 minutes to deploy. But then they had to stand by and wait until they got clearance to attempt a rescue.
“When we did get the go-ahead, we drove to the entrance to Camp Circle V and went in together,” he said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t all make it up there at the same time. Because on our way, half our vehicles were stopped with fallen tree logs, burning oak trees, which we had to pull out our chain saws and cut up before we could proceed on.”
Entering the camp was even hairier. Flames were already licking the backside of one of the lower buildings. But then a water-dropping helicopter showed up and released its load right on the structure.
“So that was very nice to see,” reported Trichler with the hint of a grin. “When we arrived at the camp, I was actually kind of amazed. Everything looked organized. They were calm. The kids were lined up. I went up to the counselors to tell them how many people we could take in each vehicle. Then we gathered the kids with a counselor and loaded them in our vehicles. And we proceeded down the canyon following the dozer, which was clearing the fallen logs that had occurred after we drove by.”
After a moment, he said, “As we were going by many hotspots, we actually could feel the heat of the fire coming through our windows. I was amazed by the kids. I had 10 kids and a couple counselors in my vehicle. And I was amazed that they were calm. They were under control. They weren’t panicking. They were actually even singing some songs on the way down.”
At the bottom on Highway 154, now going on 5:30 p.m., campers, counselors and staff members transferred into two buses from the Chumash Casino, which shuttled them 13 miles to Old Mission Santa Ines to be reunited with worried family members. Chartered buses took the rest back to their regular pickup points in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. It was after 11 p.m. when the last campers were finally with their families.
‘We will rebuild’
David Fields, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Los Angeles, pointed out how the Circle V Ranch Camp emergency evacuation plan worked. The camp’s staff and counselors acted professionally, compassionately and calmly all through the nearly five-hour horrific experience.
He thanked the U.S. Forest Service, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s office and fire department, search and rescue team, Old Mission Santa Ines and volunteers who turned a potential human life disaster into a textbook rescue.
Then Field’s added, “Everyone is safe! That is such a blessing. Yes, we did lose our craft shack cabin and our health office cabin in the fire. Our water treatment facility and pipes are seriously damaged requiring months of repairs, so we had to cancel the remaining sessions of our 2017 Circle V summer camp.
“We will rebuild,” he stressed, “and welcome donations to help with this effort. On behalf of all of us at St. Vincent de Paul and our beautiful Circle V Ranch Camp, thank you and God bless.”
Dave Dalhberg told Angelus News he wasn’t sure why he was the only first responder to make it all the way up the dangerous road to the isolated camp — two hours before a bulldozer came to clear the road. “I don’t know,” he said with a small shrug. “I was just there waiting and watching, and the wind happened to change or something. So I decided to take a chance and go for it. Because I knew that road, and I knew there were kids and adults up there. That was my assignment.”
So what did you do when you got to the camp?
“I told the counselors that we’re going to be staying in place because that is the safest spot that we can be [in] at the time,” recalled the U.S. Forest Service patrolman. “Knowing the conditions that I drove in on the road — fire on both sides, flaming branches and sticks and everything falling in the road. So I knew that it was the best place to be for all of us at this time, including myself.”
Donations to help rebuild Circle V Ranch Camp and provide “camperships” (scholarships) to disadvantaged youths can be made online at svdpla.org/donate/rebuild-camp or contact Gina Doyle, director of development, at 323-226-9643 or [email protected].