How Whittier Fire heroes rescued Circle V Ranch campers, counselors

Posted at 11:45 PM, Jul 14, 2017

Some of the heroes who rescued 82 kids and adults stranded at Circle V Ranch Camp when the Whittier Fire began nearly a week ago spoke out on Friday.

Newly released dash cam footage shows Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s deputies attempting to get to the camp last Saturday.

“Within seconds, the entire shrubbery and trees engulfed in flames and the roadway was covered,” said Sgt. Neil Gowing.

At the end of the road, 58 campers ages seven through 16 and 24 adult staff members were trapped in the camp.

The deputies turned around but U.S. Forest Service Patrolman Dave Dahlberg, who was initially behind them, was able to pass and make it through.

“I was able to make access into the camp through all the smoke and flames and all the debris on the road. It was tough at some points,” said Dahlberg, who was familiar with Circle V Ranch from prior training based on similar circumstances.

Dahlberg and the campers sheltered in place at the dining hall. Flames were about 600 feet away.

“I assured them that we were in a safe place and that we would all get out safely. It seemed like minutes but it probably was closer to two hours when I first saw county Dozer 1,” he continued. 

Dozer operator Mark Linane started cutting fire line around the camp. Overhead, helicopters and airtankers made drops where the flames were seen moving toward the camp.

Dahlberg doused the dining hall with water as flames approached. Another hour went by before search and rescue vehicles arrived at the camp.

“As I was driving by one of the lower buildings, I could see the fire was actually looking up at the backside of the building,” said Nelson Trichler, a Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue team member.

Just about that time, a helicopter dropped more water. The kids and the counselors were soon loaded up in search and rescue cars and taken down the canyon.

“I explained that we were going to leave like a big snake and that big yellow bulldozer over there was going to be the head of our snake,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Department Division Chief Steve Oaks.

The heat of the fire could be felt through the window.

“I was amazed that they were calm. They were under control. They weren’t panicking. They were actually singing some songs on the way down,” Trichler said.

At the bottom of the road, Chumash Casino buses took the kids and counselors to be reunited with their families by 11:15 p.m. that same night.

The camp lost its craft shack cabin and health office cabin in the fire. The camp director says the rescuers are guardian angels.

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