Off The Map Side-Stories #7: Lost to the Flames

As my plane circled around to land at the Santa Barbara airport, the monstrous face of a pyrocumulus cloud appeared in the narrow window, and I feared that the texted warnings I’d received hours earlier were true.  The valley in which I’d made my home for over a decade was burning.  The fire-fueled cloud absolutely dwarfed the Santa Ynez mountain range, rising twice as tall as the highest peaks and billowing upwards with apocalyptic intensity.  

When the plane pierced the layer of settled smoke, the sun diminished to an orange globe within a sky choked with soot.  I disembarked and typed feverishly into my phone as I walked to the bus stop, trying to glean any information about the fire while flakes of ash drifted through the air around me.  The conflagration was being referred to as the Whittier Fire, named after the camp where the fire had possibly started… the camp where I’d been working sporadically for the last three years.

Co-workers called my number and gave distressing news.  Camp Whittier was possibly lost.  Camp Rancho Alegre, where I’d taught for eleven years, had been overrun by flames, losing nearly every building but the dining hall.  And between these two camps lay Circle V Ranch, where eighty kids had become trapped by the rapidly-spreading fire, unable to flee down the narrow entrance road to safety.

Thankfully, a veteran firefighter managed to bulldoze a path through the fallen trees and boulders wide enough for a patrol vehicle to get through.  The new arrivals cleared the space around the buildings as best they could, then hunkered down with the staff and children in the dining hall for several hours while waiting for a caravan of rescue vehicles to reach them.  Towering flare-ups, smoke and burning branches forced the rescuers to turn back three times before they managed to reach the campers, and airplanes dropped water and retardant continually until the evacuation was complete.  Miraculously, no lives were lost as howling winds and 110° temperatures conspired to help the fire sweep across 5,000 acres of the Santa Ynez valley in the course of the first day.

Every night for the following week, I watched from my rooftop as flames from the fire advanced across the foothills, growing steadily closer to my home until firefighting efforts and calmer weather caused it to stall and die out.  The loss of income from Camp Whittier proved challenging to my finances, but some of my friends had fared far worse, losing homes and belongings in those first terrible hours. 

When the highway reopened, I slipped into the camps to witness the devastation with my own eyes, and to say goodbye to Rancho Alegre… at least in its present form.  Mangled metal roofs overlaid the resting places of cabins and lodges.  A spiral staircase that I had climbed countless times to reach a bedroom loft now lay prone among the ashes, twisted even more upon itself than when it was first forged.

The forests surrounding these ruins looked stark and lifeless, with bare branches and a floor cloaked in white ash, as if a winter snowstorm had slipped into Southern California and taken the land unawares.  I hoped the oak trees would find the strength to produce new leaves again.  There was one promising sign: fresh blades of grass were already beginning to emerge where water from the fire trucks had saturated the soil.

The land was accustomed to fire.  It would survive.  In fact, the renewal had already begun.  I still found the obliteration of so many structures and so much vegetation hard to accept.  My memories from a decade spent at the ranch had no real-world reference anymore.  The flames had removed the works of both Man and Mother Nature, revealing the topography of the land as if everything that once overlaid it – the buildings, trees and bushes – had been a temporary illusion. 

Perhaps it was.  Compared to the timespan of the bedrock underlying the camp, everything that took place above its strata was fleeting and transitory.  The first era of the Outdoor School at Rancho Alegre would soon pass into legend.  Another era would begin.  And a new generation would help nurture a fresh configuration of trees, shrubs and architecture in the space where the old camp once stood.  Good luck to them, and may their creation continue the school’s legacy of wonder and adventure… something the flames can never destroy.