SAN MARCOS PASS, Calif. - Camp Whittier is coming back after a devastating wildland fire ripped through the scenic site and many structures used by children for years off San Marcos Pass near Cachuma Lake.
It is operated by the United Boys & Girls Club for local kids and those coming in from out of the area on a field trip to the Santa Ynez Valley.
Club Director Michael Baker sees opportunity from a disaster on the property last July 8 when a vehicle issue sparked the flames and the high winds turned on a torch-like impact to the hillsides, camps and areas in and around Highway 154.
Eventually, over 18,000 acres were lost on both sides of the mountain range. Near Cachuma Lake, across Broadcast Peak, and above the Gaviota Coast.
Coming back to the scene, Baker said, "it looked like a moonscape everything was white from the ash."
Nearby, kids at the Boy Scouts Camp Allegre were trapped and emergency responders were going up all the roads to make rescues from that camp and those who were also at Camp Whittier. Everyone got out unhurt.
Baker met a staff member who evacuated on the roadside as the fire was erupting. "I gave him a hug and he said 'I am OK' and he said 'Michael we got everybody out, within minutes that fire was all over the camp.' And I thought we've lost Camp Whittier. We've lost the camp."
That wasn't the case but the loss of structures, a valuable tool shed and the use of the camp was devastating.
"There's thousands of kids that come here on an annual basis. Almost every week certainly during the school year there's different schools that come here from all over," said Baker.
Even with this kind of fire, it could have been worse had the camp not cut back brush and old trees a few weeks earlier.
Baker recalled, "I had the fire marshal tell me this, and he grabbed my arm like this and say he goes 'had you guys not done the fire abatement work you guys would have lost the whole camp. Do you understand what I am saying to you? You would have lost the whole thing!'"
The last staff member to get out, Richard Fortune saw the battle going on to stop the flames.
"It was all from where that big lodge is and it came down and just raced all around that field was fire," said Fortune. "Those firefighters were so strong getting to the most critical parts and they did. They were great."
Baker took a NewsChannel 3 crew through the property to see what was lost, what was standing and what will come back again.
Among the ruins, the girls' cabins. They were leveled and one partially standing was burned and smashed by a flaming tree limb that fell and cracked the roof.
Designers are already back looking at rebuilding and reshaping the facility. Some of the work is covered by insurance but about a half a million dollars is still needed for everything that is not covered and needs to be upgraded.
"We have a company that's actually donating a bunch of rocks for us so we are going to set up a retaining wall right here and we are going to have big old boulders," Baker said next to a bare concrete slab where a girls cabin once stood.
Before doing anything for the Boys and Girls club site, however, Camp Whittier immediately offered a hand to Camp Allegre next door, wiped out and unable to serve the Boy Scouts.
"Their camp was completely decimated and we said of course absolutely whatever we can do to help and they've been operating out of here since the middle of January and you will see some temporary tenting structures here to accommodate the outdoor school. We want our Boys and Girls club to be compassionate to help their neighbors absolutely. And what better lesson than that?"
Camp Whittier had been generating an income. It has been used at times for vacation rentals, corporate retreats, and other events.
That funding helps to pay fees for kids at the Boys and Girls clubs that families can't afford so their kids can attend without any barriers.
That's why the fire scorched the financial plan in many areas.
"Camp Whittier helps supplement that so we don't turn kids away so we can make sure our doors are always open and we can scholarship these kids," said Baker. "Well the day the fire happened it's gone we have no revenue coming in from Camp Whittier anymore and we had no revenue from July to December - none. Plus we had to refund money for camps we couldn't produce."
Now with some rentals returning to undamaged sites, and a call for community donations "it's all hands on deck and we gotta get through this and the staff is relentless. We know we have to stretch the dollars even farther."
Looking at the new growth on the once burned hills, "it sounds really strange to say what we have gone through is inspiring because it is proof again, it is a special place, in a special community and people rally around. You're doing the right thing people will rally around you."
He likes to make sports references, and this was Baker's time for a 9th inning rally.
"We got a curveball thrown our way and we're gonna wait on it and we are going to take it to right field. We're gonna make it better than it ever was."
Standing next to a building with the colorful painted hand prints of children on the front door Baker said, "we will be back, Camp Whittier literally rising from the ashes"
For more information or to donate go to https://www.unitedbg.org.