Moments after the Whittier Fire sparked to life just off Highway 154 near Lake Cachuma on Saturday, July 8, U.S. Forest Service patrolman Dave Dahlberg was dispatched to the scene to make sure those fleeing the blaze didn’t get in the way of arriving emergency crews. As California Highway Patrol officers arrived to take over traffic control, Dahlberg heard radio chatter that a large group of kids and counselors were at nearby Circle V Ranch Camp, trapped at the end of a narrow dirt road that was engulfed on both sides by raging walls of wildfire. Dahlberg jumped into his patrol vehicle and started up the road toward Circle V; just ahead, veteran Santa Barbara County firefighter Mark Linane Jr. bulldozed fallen trees and loose boulders, clearing the only way in or out. The smoke was so thick that the men could barely see a few feet up the path.
Arriving ahead of the flames, Linane began cutting firebreaks around the compound — a dining commons, cabins, and outbuildings — and Dahlberg introduced himself to dozens of staffers and counselors, who, following the camp’s established fire plan, had gathered the kids, ages 7-13, in the dining hall and were working to keep them safe and calm. A handful of vehicles were parked nearby, but any attempt to shuttle 90 kids through the oncoming fire seemed like a bad idea.
Dahlberg radioed Santa Barbara County Fire Marshal Steve Oaks, who was monitoring the evacuation from the bottom of the access road at Highway 154 and kept in radio contact with his own team. Also on the scene was Forest Service Division Chief Mark von Tillow, who knew the area from hosting annual wildfire training camps at Circle V. Dahlberg reported that everybody was accounted for and safe — so far.
As erratic winds whipped the flames up the mountain, adults organized into groups moving natural gas canisters far away from the dining hall and covering the windows with blankets. Their plan was to shelter in place, essentially to ride out the approaching wildfire until rescue crews could punch through the damaged roadway, according to Forest Service Public Affairs Officer Andrew Madsen. “Dahlberg provided a calming influence on the other adults,” he reported, “which helped keep the kids calm. He told them, ‘You’re safe, and we’re going to wait for the fire to blow by, and then we’ll get you out of here.’”
Stressful situations, especially when the lives of children are at stake, have a way of creating versions of the truth and even altering time itself. For instance, when Oaks reflected on the evacuation 48 hours later, he admitted the whole incident felt like it lasted only 90 minutes, when in fact the kids didn’t make it out until 6:30 that evening, almost five hours after their initial call for help. Von Tillow, now the fire’s incident commander, described Dahlberg and the campers as waiting out the firestorm in the middle of Circle V’s large sports field, an expanse of artificial turf open to the sky and away from dry grass and woodland with a nearby swimming pool as a shelter of last resort. But according to Madsen, who said he discussed events with Dahlberg, the group sheltered inside the dining commons, with only a backup plan of moving en masse to the ball field. Dahlberg, who is still working 12-hour shifts fighting the fire, could not be reached before deadline. Also, Circle V campers and counselors have asked for privacy, according to a representative of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Council of Los Angeles, which owns the camp; the representative, however, confirmed Dahlberg’s story.
In any case, it’s accurate to say the fire raged on, fueled by howling afternoon winds in a heat wave maxing out at a reported 110 degrees. A caravan of Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue crewmembers in four-wheel-drive SUVs and extended passenger vans idled nearby at Rancho San Marcos Golf Course, waiting for incident shot-callers to give the green light. Von Tillow said he called in “three valid attempts” to get rescue vehicles up the road, only to call them off moments later as towering flare-ups, dark smoke, and burning branches “compromised access.” At the same time, a DC-10 loaded with fire retardant en route to the Alamo Fire was redirected to make its drop at Circle V, where water-toting helicopters were already creating a buffer zone around the campers.
“We didn’t know what exactly was going on up there, but we were ready,” said Nelson Trichler, a financial planner who has been a Search & Rescue volunteer since 1981. When they finally got the go-ahead, Trichler and his team of 14 men went in with seven vehicles. Flaming branches fell into the path, occasionally separating the emergency caravan, but a few men would jump out with chainsaws to remove the blockage. “When we got to Circle V, it was a tense situation, but it was not chaos,” he remembered. All the campers were outside, ready to go, and divided into small groups that would fit into the Search & Rescue vehicles, plus several Sheriff SUVs and the handful of staffer cars that were already at the site. It was a tight operation, Trichler said: Within 10 minutes, everybody was loaded for the one-and-half-mile crawl back to Highway 154.
Dozer operator Linane took the lead, again clearing the road for the long line of rescue vehicles packed with children. Driving a van with 10 kids and another Search & Rescue volunteer, Trichler remembers feeling the heat of the fire through his side window. His group was relatively calm, at one point singing “Let My Little Light Shine.” “They did an outstanding job,” Von Tillow said, “taking care of priority number one — saving lives.”
At the 154, the kids were transferred to a fleet of sleek buses provided by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians and shuttled to their loved ones anxiously waiting at Old Mission Santa Inés in Solvang. “Once they transferred to the buses, our role was over,” Trichler said. “We were reassigned to help evacuate Paradise Road.”