While the beginnings of the Whittier Fire began racing up the dry hillsides above Santa Barbara County’s Lake Cachuma toward the Circle V Ranch Camp and Retreat Center on July 8, 2017, summer camp was in full swing.
Sitting a few miles from the lake in a live oak forest, the camp with mostly boys and girls from disadvantaged urban families has been run and operated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Los Angeles Council, since 1945 at different sites.
By the time the fire was fully contained three months later, 18,430 acres were burned, mostly on national forest lands suffering from a yearslong drought. Sixteen homes were destroyed. Nine people suffered nonfatal injuries.
But those injuries could have led to many fatalities, with only 20-some children and staff from the camp making it all the way down a narrow, rutted road to state Route 154. The rest, 58 children and 24 staff members, “sheltered in place” in the camp’s dining lodge until forest service workers and firemen broke through the smoke and flames to rescue them.
Looking back, the counselors and campers there that day consider themselves very lucky that the camp was not completely burned to the ground. In fact, the fire went around it for the most part. But in the upper part of the camp, both the arts and crafts building and the health center were both destroyed. A water treatment plant about a quarter-mile away was also severely damaged.
Still, the post-fire plan was to get the camp up and running for last summer. But in January, a mudslide and debris flow came through part of the camp, setting everything back. So the first campers in two years arrived earlier this month on Friday, July 12.
The camp formally reopened three days later with a special Mass in the camp’s outdoor chapel celebrated by Father Peter Banks, vocation director for the Western American Province of Franciscan Capuchins, and Father Lawrence Seyer, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Montecito.
Afterward, Seyer gave a special blessing with holy water for the reopened camp.
“You guys are the first group here after the fire,” he pointed out. “So we ask for Jesus to be here and help us with this renewing of our camp. May counselors teach their students how to join the discovery of human wisdom with the truth of the Gospel, so they may be able to keep the true faith and the love in their lives.
“We also ask the Lord that the campus will find in its teachers and counselors the image of Christ. So that with both human and divine learning, they may be true and be able to redeem one another in Christ. Amen.”
Later, a metal plaque fixed to the side of a boulder titled “THANK YOU GUARDIAN ANGELS” was dedicated to the first responders who rescued the campers and staff. In gold letters, it thanked the U.S. Forest Service, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue, as well as volunteers and staff.
Below it reads: “In Gratitude for Your Extraordinary Service and Efforts During the July 8, 2017 Whittier Wildfire at St. Vincent de Paul Circle V Ranch Camp.”
Alexis Paniagua, 25, started working at Circle V in the summer of 2012 as a counselor who trained older campers affectionately known as CILTs (Counselors in Leadership Training) to become counselors themselves.
He believes the plaque is a fitting tribute to the first responders who helped keep counselors like him calm, which is what he tried to do while driving a car full of young girl campers down a windy access road to Route 154 and safety.
He recalls it was just a regular day when he and some other staffers suddenly smelled smoke. When they could see flames, it was time to get out of there. He and a counselor loaded Paniagua’s Kia with seven- and eight-year-old girls, and slowly started down the access road in a caravan of other camp residents and staff members.
“There was fire all around, and I was really afraid and terrified,” Paniagua recalled.
“We tried everything to distract them, singing lively camp songs, playing music and playing games, including one where we had the campers close their eyes.”
The counselors’ efforts were successful, until the flames came so close that the children could see lit branches falling.
The caravan finally made it out to Route 154 and then headed to nearby Old Mission Santa Inez in Solvang, their designated evacuation spot for emergencies, before making making phone calls to parents.
Paniagua, who just started a “diversion” job with Los Angeles County to keep juveniles out of detention, calls Circle V his “second home.” He admitted he was disappointed when the camp didn’t open last summer.
“But I’m super excited to be able to come back now and be able to play with the kids and interact with them,” he said, grinning. “I always look forward to coming back every year.”
So does Ray Lopez. The camp’s director said that mudflow damage to Circle V’s boys’ side of the camp hampered his hopes of reopening the camp last summer. He also wanted to make it even better than ever when it did open, especially making the dining lodge even more fireproof.
Beside new fire retardant dark brown paint, the long, single-story building now has rolled up aluminum-like foil on every window that can withstand up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the same material used by firefighters to protect themselves.
“We feel good about this building being our shelter in-place zone,” he added, turning to glance at the dining lodge behind him. “But we’re looking at ways to even make it safer. So a good number of kids are coming back who were here the day of the fire.”
This is Isaiah Simental’s fourth year at Circle V, and his first time back since the Whittier Fire broke out. He was in his cabin hanging out with other members of his outfit when they heard the fire siren. At first, they laughed, thinking that somebody must have set it off.
But when a burning tree that had fallen on the access road they were using to evacuate forced them to return to camp, it became all too real.
“I felt scared and I felt sad,” remembered the 12-year-old. “And I wanted to get out. But then the fire was like halfway around the camp. You could see the fire now in the back. And some of the windows were melting. So we were just praying. We were just hoping that we could get out.”
That was when a man driving a bulldozer showed up. He started relaying where loads of fire retardants should be dropped. And he made a path behind the dining lodge if the wildfire got out of control.
“The counselors were giving us ice, water, and helping kids to sing. They were doing everything just to help us calm down. But I thought I was going to be stuck there, because I had seen forest fires on TV.”
But led by the bulldozer, campers and staff members started driving down the access road to Route 154 again. This time they made it through. He was glad to be getting out, but sad, too, thinking the camp would be burned down. “Because I’d been going here, and I had a lot of good times,” he explained.
This summer, 95 percent of Circle V’s campers are either on partial or even full scholarships, Lopez said. Few pay the full cost of $600 for a week of six days and five nights in the Santa Inez Mountains. And it can be a life-changing experience.
“You can watch the wonder through their eyes when they see a family of turkeys or a deer in a meadow or a starry night,” said Lopez, “and just see their awe of witnessing God’s beauty, where that can be hard in urban places. Kids today don’t have that opportunity in city parks, where programs are filled up or the neighborhood park isn’t safe.
“So we’re blessed to be part of an amazing ministry that really gives kids a chance to be their true selves. The counselors and the CILTs sacrifice their summers to make a difference in the lives of young people.”