On Saturday, July 8, 2017, Santa Barbara County sat baking under a blazing sun in a cloudless blue sky as temperatures pushed into the 90s in the Santa Ynez Valley.
At the nearby Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, campers relaxed in the shade while their children splashed in the swimming pool, unaware that across Highway 154 behind low ridges covered with oaks, a juvenile was driving a passenger car through dry grass on a hillside above Camp Whittier.
At 1:40 p.m., heat from the catalytic converter or perhaps a spark from the vehicle’s exhaust ignited the dry grass on U.S. Bureau of Reclamation land, and the Whittier fire ignited.
Flames raced along Highway 154, sending panicked campers fleeing from Cachuma Lake, leaving their tents and other gear behind.
“When we saw it, it was just across the road,” said Edwin Figueroa of San Diego. “Our campsite was right alongside the highway. I thought, ‘This is pretty close.’ You could hear the crackling of the fire.”
The flames and the smoke cast an eerie light over everything.
“When we were young, we had an experience with a fire in our neighborhood that changed the color of the atmosphere,” said Dennis Alcazar of Los Angeles, whose family was camping with the Figueroa family. “I knew this was not good.”
Without a moment’s hesitation they decided to evacuate, driving their SUVs out of the campground right past the raging flames alongside Hwy. 154.
“We had to leave everything behind,” Evelyn Figueroa said. “All the camping gear, the tents, the coolers, the food.”
“The beer,” Alcazar lamented.
'The fire's in your yard'
The fire devoured trees, grass and chaparral as it entered U.S. Forest Service land in the rugged hills between the Valley and Santa Barbara and bore down on Camp Whittier, where groundskeeper Cookie Fortune and his wife, Pam, made their home.
Pam, two of her grandchildren, one of her friends and two of her friend's children were all in their bathing suits, preparing to head down to the camp swimming pool.
Cellphones don’t work in the canyon where the camp is located, but the hand-held radio that linked Pam and Cookie was on.
“All I heard was ‘Cookie, Cookie, there’s a fire,’” Pam recalled.
The fire was half a mile away, but they decided to get ready to evacuate anyway.
“I thought I had at least maybe 45 minutes, if we had to evacuate at all,” Pam said.
Her friend went out to her car to get her daughter a dress so she wouldn’t have to evacuate in her bathing suit. When she came back in, she said, “The fire’s in your yard.”
Pam put her grandchildren and the dog in her car, while her friend and her kids piled into theirs, then Pam headed back for her hamsters and laptop.
“I took a picture down the hill of the flames,” she said. “I turned my head, and when I looked back the fire had come 20 feet in three seconds.”
She added, “The trees didn’t have time to catch fire and burn. The fire wasn’t under them long enough. It was just rushing through the dry grass.”
While Pam and her friend barreled out of the camp, Cookie was evacuating 100 members of a church group staying there.
Most of Camp Whittier survived, but the Fortunes' home did not. They found out when they saw a photo taken by a Santa Barbara County firefighter and recognized their two concrete bulldogs rising from a pile of ash and burned rubble.
Campers trapped by wall of flame at Circle V
As the fire raged east along the highway and southward up the slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains, 30 young campers and 12 staff members escaped from Circle V Ranch Camp along the dirt access road to Highway 154.
But just half an hour after ignition, the fire blocked the Circle V access road as boulders and flaming trees crashed down across it.
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In the blink of an eye, 83 people, including 56 young campers, were trapped in Circle V by a wall of flame.
They took shelter in the camp dining hall as U.S. Forest Service, County Fire and Sheriff’s Office personnel converged on the area.
Over the course of an hour, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies, including a convoy of eight patrol cars, would try repeatedly to reach the camp, only to be turned back by walls of flame, thick smoke and falling flaming debris.
Then Forest Service Patrolman Dave Dahlberg, who had trained for structure protection in simulations at Circle V, made the mile-and-a-half drive up the access road and reached the camp.
With the fire increasing in intensity at the mouth of the canyon, fire officials decided the campers should shelter in place.
Meanwhile, county firefighter Mark Linane had offloaded his bulldozer and was working at cutting fire lines on the Camp Whittier side of the fire when he heard there were kids trapped at Circle V Ranch Camp. He turned his dozer and headed for the camp.
“He told me later he knew his all-metal dozer could take a lot more heat than the vehicles, so he started up the Circle V Camp road,” said County Fire Division Chief Steve Oaks, who had become the evacuation supervisor.
Dahlberg kept the youths calm for two hours until Linane arrived, followed shortly by County Fire Battalion Chief Matt Farris and Oaks, and the four began active fire suppression efforts to protect the campers and structures from the approaching flames.
Before long, Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team members and deputies made it to the camp with rescue vehicles, and the campers and staff were loaded up.
In a long convoy, led by Linane in his bulldozer, they were driven out through the flaming forest to Highway 154, where they were loaded into buses sent up by the Chumash Casino Resort and taken out of the area.
Structures reduced to rubble at Rancho Alegre
The next target for the Whittier fire was Rancho Alegre Boy Scout Camp and Outdoor School, where everyone had already left for the weekend except two staff members.
As the flames marched toward the camp, the two staffers fled for their lives, leaving all their belongings behind.
No one was there to witness the destruction of the camp, but the following day the level of devastation was clear.
With about 14,000 homes in the communities of Vandenberg Village, Mission Hills and Mesa Oaks located on and around the reserve, and with wildfires becoming increasingly stronger and more dangerous, protecting the region from wildland blazes has become a renewed priority for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
Mobile homes were little more than piles of rubble surrounding warped steel frames. Melted sheet metal roofs and sheds attested to the heat.
A pickup truck and a station wagon were reduced to burned-out shells outside the homes of the resident counselors, who lost everything they owned.
Nearby, a sign warning of “extreme” fire danger was partially burned by the flames.
In many places, smoke was still rising from hot spots in the burned-out stumps and trunks of trees, and everything was covered with a coating of gray ash.
Still, there were signs of hope: A large hawk hunted among the skeletal trees, a few squirrels and lizards scurried around in the ashes and a skittish deer cautiously picked its way downhill.
Before it was finally declared fully contained Oct. 5, the Whittier fire incinerated 18,480 acres and destroyed or damaged 53 structures.
Forty-seven of those 53 structures were at Rancho Alegre.
But even as the fire raged on toward the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the leaders of the Boy Scouts of America Los Padres Council vowed to rebuild, and within days they launched a fundraising campaign.
Construction now is underway.
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