New details were released Friday afternoon about the daring, harrowing, and spectacularly successful evacuation of 82 kids and counselors from the Circle V Ranch — near the Whittier Fire’s point of origin and operated as a kids’ summer camp by St. Vincent de Paul — last Saturday afternoon. Conspicuously missing from the special press conference, held at the Incident Command at Dos Pueblo High School, was Mark Linane Jr., the county firefighter who drove his bulldozer up the camp’s narrow, one-mile road, then engulfed in flames, pushing burning timber out of the way, thus clearing the way for subsequent search and rescue personnel. In local firefighting circles, Linane’s father has long been regarded as an iconic, almost mythic, figure. After the Whittier Fire, the same will be true of his son. During the Friday briefing, however, Linane Junior — identified only as “Santa Barbara Dozer One” throughout — was otherwise occupied fighting the fire and not available to tell his own story.
When the fire was first reported at 1:40 p.m. on Saturday, July 8, Circle V was just four days into its two-week summer camp for low-income kids — ages 6 to 17 — from Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties. Thirty campers accompanied by 12 adults managed to make it out as per the camp’s well-established evacuation plans. The 30-acre camp has been located at that site since 1945. That left 58 campers and 24 adults — 82 people — stuck. According to Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Petersen and Fire Division Chief Steve Oaks, Santa Barbara County deputy sheriffs made four separate efforts from 2:19 to 2:45 p.m. to drive the blazing path but were rebuffed each time by the intense heat and vegetation bursting into flame. In the last effort, no fewer than eight vehicles were involved, but with the road engulfed, they turned back after one mile. At 2:59 p.m., Oaks recounted, a patrolman with the Forest Service named Dave Dahlberg, who’d initially been assigned to keep traffic away, showed up.
At about the same time, dozer driver Linane had apparently shown up as well. He reckoned, recounted Oaks, that his steel bulldozer could absorb more heat than the patrol cars and ran interference for Dahlberg, whose patrol car was equipped with the scant protection offered by 200 gallons of water. Dahlberg arrived at 2:59 p.m., at which point he concluded the safest place for those assembled was inside the main dining hall of the Circle V camp. There, for two hours, he assured both campers and counselors that help was on the way and helped prepare the premises for the possible onset of fire.
Dahlberg, it turned out, had been involved in emergency fire response drills conducted at Circle V earlier this year. Chief Oaks was asked how long it takes to prepare for such a scenario. “About 20 years,” he answered.
Two hours later, Search and Rescue vehicles arrived to take the kids and counselors out, about 10 per vehicle. About half the rescue vehicles found their way blocked by burning timber in the road and did not make it. When those who made it arrived, they reported seeing flames licking the backside of the dining hall building. That’s when, they also recalled, a water-bearing helicopter made a fortuitously timed drop. The counselors and the campers were inside singing camp songs, watching movies, and playing games to keep distracted and calm.
At 5:30 p.m., the evacuation caravan left Circle V, and at Highway 154, they transferred into to two luxury coaches provided by the Chumash Casino Resort.
The punch line of the story, according to Oaks and the many fire officials who spoke, is the importance of interagency cooperation and coordination. “The real story here is the cooperation of multiple agencies all functioning together to do a single purpose,” said Chief Oaks.
Given the specifics of this particular rescue and evacuation effort, those agencies have more personal faces: Mark Linane Jr. of Santa Barbara County Fire and David Dahlberg of the U.S. Forest Service. Or as Dave Fields, spokesperson for St. Vincent de Paul, put it, “In our world, we call them our guardian angels.”