SANTA BARBARA, County - First responders involved in the rescue of 80 campers and staff members trapped by the Whittier Fire at the Circle V Ranch Camp held a press conference on Friday to offer new details about the incident that made national headlines.
U.S. Forest Service Incident Commander Mark Von Tillow, Santa Barbara County Fire Division Chief Steve Oaks, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Sergeant Neil Gowing, U.S. Forest Service Patrolman Dave Dahlberg, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team Incident Commander Nelson Trichler and the Executive Director for St. Vincent de Paul Circle V Ranch Camp David Fields were all present to share their personal experiences leading up to the rescue.
The timeline provided at the press conference is as follows:
At July 8, 2017 at 1:42p.m., concerned citizens reported a fire now known as the Whittier Fire to the Santa Barbara County Public Safety Dispatch Center. The fire was located near the entrance to Camp Whittier and the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area. The fire burned toward the Circle V Ranch Camp where 124 people including 88 campers, 36 adult staff members and counselors were attending a summer camp. Thirty campers and 12 staff members were able to evacuate in vehicles. Eighty-two people could not leave when a wall of flames, falling trees, rocks and debris blocked the dirt road that led to Highway 154 from the camp.
Personnel from the U.S. Forest Service, Santa Barbara County Fire Department and Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene shortly after the fire was reported and began coordinating an evacuation plan.
At 2:00 p.m. Santa Barbara County Fire Division Chief Steve Oaks, who was on scene, became the Evacuation Supervisor. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team responded to assist with the evacuations while U.S. Forest Service Patrolman Dave Dahlberg, responded to assist with traffic control in the Highway 154 - Whittier/Circle V area.
At 2:19 p.m., Dispatch received the first report that campers and staff members were unable to leave the Circle V Ranch Camp. At 2:20 p.m., Oaks and Sheriff’s Lt. Brian Olmstead began an evacuation and rescue plan.
At 2:25 p.m., Sheriff’s Deputy Brice Bruening who is assigned to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, notified Dispatch that the Chumash Casino would send buses to help in the evacuation effort.
At 2:30 p.m., Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Wicklund drove toward the Circle V Ranch Camp up the dirt road but was not able to drive to the camp due to flames and falling debris.
At 2:45 p.m., Sheriff’s deputies in eight patrol cars, led by Sgt. Neil Gowing attempted once again to access Circle V up the dirt road. They drove up the road about one mile but when, a wall of flames engulfed the roadway, they were unable to proceed any further.
At 2:59 p.m., Dahlberg, who had trained for structure protection simulations at Circle V Ranch in the past, drove the one and one-half mile dirt road to the Circle V camp. When he arrived, he met the campers inside the dining hall area along with a handful of staff members waiting outside. Dahlberg assessed the situation and decided the safest course of action was for the campers, staff members, and counselors to shelter in place.
Santa Barbara County Firefighter Mark Linane had offloaded his bulldozer in the area of Camp Whittier to begin cutting fire lines on the fire’s edge. When he heard there were children trapped at Circle V Ranch and he turned his dozer, heading toward Circle V Ranch.
For the next two hours, Dahlberg calmed the campers and reassured them of their safety. They remained sheltered in place inside the dining room building until Linane joined Dahlberg when he reached the Circle V Ranch Camp in his dozer.
When Santa Barbara County Battalion Chief Matt Farris arrived at the Circle V Ranch he, Dahlberg and Linane began active fire suppression to minimize the impact on sheltered campers and protect the structures from encroaching flames.
At 4:30 p.m., the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team and Sheriff’s personnel staged at the Circle V Ranch entrance on Highway 154.
At 4:40 p.m., Oaks directed Olmstead to send the extraction vehicles to the camp.
At 4:48 p.m., 12 Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team members in seven Search and Rescue vehicles along with six Sheriff’s vehicles and personnel initiated the search and rescue effort up the dirt road to the Circle V Ranch Camp.
At 4:56 p.m., they arrived at the Circle V Ranch Camp and coordinated with camp staff members to assign children, counselors and staff members to the vehicles. Once everyone was safely in vehicles, the bulldozer, driven by Linane, led the caravan down the dirt road toward Highway 154. The bulldozer minimized the threat to the vehicles and cleared fallen trees and other obstacles partially blocking the roadway.
At 5:30 p.m., the caravan reached the intersection of the camp road and Highway 154. The children, counselors and staff members transferred from the caravan vehicles into two Chumash buses that shuttled them to Mission Santa Ines where they were reunited with their family members.