SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. — It was a wildfire that forced Mark Von Tillow to ask himself: “Am I going to have 60, 70, 80 people dead on my watch?”
The incident commander for the US Forest Service was locked in a battle for control of the Whittier fire earlier this month in Los Padres National Forest, north of Santa Barbara.
But it wasn’t the fire itself Von Tillow was most concerned about, it was the 88 kids and 36 staff members up the hill at Circle V Ranch Camp.
It was clear they were literally in the line of fire.
“I knew that there wasn’t a chance for the fire to go left or right,” Von Tillow said. “It was all funneling right towards Circle V.”
Reaching the camp was priority one for Santa Barbara County Fire Division Chief Steve Oaks, who was leading the evacuation effort. But at least three attempts by sheriff’s deputies failed — the fire was too intense for their vehicles to pass.
By now, staff at Circle V knew they were in trouble. Fourteen-year-old Ashley Hart was with other campers in the pool when she was ordered to get out.
“I saw people from the kitchen coming down and they were pulling hoses out,” Hart said. “So I was like, ‘Oh, there must be a fire.'”
Staff members were able to drive 30 of the youngest kids down the hill before the fire grew too intense.
While on her way down, Hart recalls branches and embers hitting the vehicle.
“Once they said to back up, I was like ‘Uh-oh.'”
The remaining vehicles, including the one Hart was in, would have to turn back. It was just too dangerous.
Everyone filed into the dining hall where staff members covered the windows and did their best to keep the kids busy. They played games, ate ice cream and watched “Zootopia.”
But that didn’t change the fact that they were trapped.
“There was a lot of crying,” Hart said.
Fifty-eight kids and 24 adults were on their own. And the fire was about to reach the camp.
Roadblock of fire
At the bottom of the hill, rescue crews were making yet another attempt to reach the campers.
“They were up there alone, so they could run, they could make poor decisions,” said Oaks. “I needed to get somebody that we had communication with up there.”
At first, deputies were successfully navigating the 1.5-mile, smoky stretch of road leading to the camp, even as full-grown oak trees — devoured by the fire — smoldered on either side of the road.
What happened next was captured on a sheriff deputy’s dashcam: a wall of fire leaped across the road, its intensity growing as it swallowed the surrounding vegetation, until it looked as if the dash cam was pointed directly at the sun.
It was a roadblock of fire, and deputies knew they couldn’t go any farther.
Lucky for them, someone else already had.
David Dahlberg of the US Forest Service was just ahead of the deputies, and squeezed by the fire seconds before it erupted across the road.
“There were tree branches on fire falling in the road. A few hit my truck and rolled off,” Dahlberg said of the drive. “There were rocks rolling off the side of the cliff.”
“The fact that Dave was able to get through is still, frankly, a bit of a mystery,” Oaks said.
Dahlberg arrived to a few “semi-frantic” counselors, he said, but credited the staff for keeping everyone calm so he could work to make the camp more fireproof. He enlisted the help of counselors to hose down the buildings and move propane tanks away from the fire.
Still, he was just one firefighter against a raging fire. His orders, if the fire started to consume the camp, were to put all of the kids into the swimming pool.
He hoped it wouldn’t come to that. But right now, he couldn’t be sure.
‘What if we can’t get out?’
Ironically, it was Christmas Day at the Circle V Ranch Camp.
Each day was a different holiday theme at the camp, and on this Saturday it was Christmas.
Little craft snowmen sat on the picnic tables, freshly molded by the kids, and red bows adorned the windows of the dining hall.
That’s where Ashley Hart and dozens of other kids were inside, “relieved” that Dahlberg made it to camp. But then she saw just how close the flames had come.
“It was very serious to me, but when I saw the flames it shocked me that it was that close,” Hart said. “I was just like, ‘What if we can’t get out?'”
Dahlberg was determined to not let that happen. But the fire was now just 600 feet away, across a ridge, and approaching from two directions.
By now, helicopters and air tankers were circling the camp, dropping water and retardant to keep the fire at bay.
Meanwhile, Santa Barbara County bulldozer operator Mark Linane Jr. heard the radio traffic and knew first responders weren’t making it up the hill.
“He knew that his dozer could take a lot more heat just being metal and no rubber,” Oaks said. “And it is a little higher up than the squad cars.”
So Linane drove the bulldozer toward the ranch, eventually making it onto the dirt road and to the camp. He went to work clearing a perimeter around the camp to put some space between the camp and the blaze.
After a three-hour ordeal, it was finally safe enough to evacuate the remaining campers and staff. But the threat was not over.
“(The fire) started to come up toward the camp and it was wrapping some of the buildings,” Dahlberg said.
Oaks, who had now reached the camp, told everyone to get into the vehicles and prepare to form a long snake –with the bulldozer at the head clearing a path.
The “snake” headed down the hill, draped in smoke and skimming the fire.
“One of the fires burned down the tree and it fell right next to us as we were leaving,” said Ashley’s brother, Christopher, 12.
But everyone made it out unhurt.
As the kids waited for their parents, counselors played one more movie to comfort them: “Frozen.”
‘You kept our camp safe’
The Whittier fire ultimately burned more than 18,000 acres, but it hasn’t claimed any lives.
“Everyone is safe! That is such a blessing!” said a statement from the camp.
“We are so grateful to everyone who worked tirelessly together to get everyone out safely …” the camp said.
Circle V Ranch, however, was forced to close for the rest of the year. The blaze destroyed two buildings and heavily damaged its water treatment facility. The camp is committed to rebuilding.
“I don’t like to see that side of what could have happened,” Dahlberg said. “Mainly because it didn’t.”
He says his training kicked in, and he knew to stay calm.
The real accomplishment of this rescue team is perhaps best told by one of the 82 lives they likely saved that “Christmas Day” at Circle V.
“It’s very well appreciated,” Ashley said. “You kept our camp safe and most importantly, you kept all of us children safe.”