While the beginnings of the Whittier Fire began racing up the dry hillsides above Santa Barbara County’s Lake Cachuma toward the Circle V Ranch Camp and Retreat Center on July 8, 2017,  summer camp was in full swing. 

Sitting a few miles from the lake in a live oak forest, the camp with mostly boys and girls from disadvantaged urban families has been run and operated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Los Angeles Council, since 1945 at different sites. 

By the time the fire was fully contained three months later, 18,430 acres were burned, mostly on national forest lands suffering from a yearslong drought. Sixteen homes were destroyed. Nine people suffered nonfatal injuries. 

But those injuries could have led to many fatalities, with only 20-some children and staff from the camp making it all the way down a narrow, rutted road to state Route 154. The rest, 58 children and 24 staff members, “sheltered in place” in the camp’s dining lodge until forest service workers and firemen broke through the smoke and flames to rescue them. 

Looking back, the counselors and campers there that day consider themselves very lucky that the camp was not completely burned to the ground. In fact, the fire went around it for the most part. But in the upper part of the camp, both the arts and crafts building and the health center were both destroyed. A water treatment plant about a quarter-mile away was also severely damaged. 

Still, the post-fire plan was to get the camp up and running for last summer. But in January, a mudslide and debris flow came through part of the camp, setting everything back. So the first campers in two years arrived earlier this month on Friday, July 12.

The camp formally reopened three days later with a special Mass in the camp’s outdoor chapel celebrated by Father Peter Banks, vocation director for the Western American Province of Franciscan Capuchins, and Father Lawrence Seyer, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Montecito.

Later, a metal plaque fixed to the side of a boulder titled “THANK YOU GUARDIAN ANGELS” was dedicated to the first responders who rescued the campers and staff. In gold letters, it thanked the U.S. Forest Service, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue, as well as volunteers and staff. 

Below it reads: “In Gratitude for Your Extraordinary Service and Efforts During the July 8, 2017 Whittier Wildfire at St. Vincent de Paul Circle V Ranch Camp.”

Full story at Angelus.