Santa Barbara- S County

Whittier Fire Incident Commander recounts harrowing rescue of 80 children

Whittier Fire Incident Commander recounts harrowing rescue of 80 kids

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - New and frightening details are emerging about the tense hours leading up to the rescue of 80 children trapped at Circle V Ranch Camp during the height of the Whittier Fire.

The fire broke out on Saturday afternoon near Lake Cachuma, forcing the evacuation of all campgrounds in the area.

Circle V Ranch Camp is located about two miles up from Highway 154, and dozens of children there had no way out. The road leading to the camp was engulfed in flames and scattered with falling debris.

NewsChannel 3 crews got an exclusive tour of the camp and the AstoTurf field where the kids and staff were forced to wait out the fire for nearly 5 hours.

Mark Von Tillow is the Division Chief for the Santa Barbara District of the Los Padres National Forest. He is also the Incident Commander for the Whitter Fire and was the person charged with getting all of the kids out alive.

Von Tillow tried to send law enforcement officers up the road to access the camp several times, but they kept meeting the fire head on and had to turn around.

A Forest Service employee was finally able to reach the frightened group, as flames began to close in around them.

"He did make access to the camp and was able to sit with the kids and get them corralled," said Von Tillow. But, there was still no way out.

Von Tillow knew the layout of the camp and the surrounding area. For the last several years, the U.S. Forest Service has held a basic training camp for women at the camp. Von Tillow instructed the employee to have the kids and staff shelter in place on the field and wait until rescue crews could reach them.

Von Tillow also gave the instruction to jump in the nearby pool as a last ditch effort if the flames were about to overtake them.

While the Forest Service employee kept the group calm, Von Tillow ordered aircraft to drop retardant around the perimeter.

A Santa Barbara County Fire Department dozer pushed its way through the fiery road, clearing a path to the camp.

Santa Barbara County search and rescue crews, deputies, and fire chiefs made their way up to the camp about four and a half hours after the ordeal began.

"We accounted for all of the kids, and loaded them up. The dozer came to the front of the line and cleared the road on the way out with all of the other cars in tow," Von Tillow said. "This place was still on fire, trees were falling and rocks were moving. It was very heroic work."

Von Tillow said this rescue operation was fraught with risk, but it was a risk he was willing to take to save lives.


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