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Local News

Out of Ashes of Whittier Fire, Circle V Ranch Camp Rebuilding Toward 2019 Reopening

Inspired by harrowing rescue of campers and committed to the cause, St. Vincent de Paul of Los Angeles undaunted by devastation

Several buildings at the Circle V Ranch Camp & Retreat Center in the Santa Ynez Valley were damaged or destroyed by the Whittier Fire. St. Vincent de Paul of Los Angeles, which owns and operates the youth camp, expect to reopen the facility in 2019. Click to view larger
Several buildings at the Circle V Ranch Camp & Retreat Center in the Santa Ynez Valley were damaged or destroyed by the Whittier Fire. St. Vincent de Paul of Los Angeles, which owns and operates the youth camp, expect to reopen the facility in 2019. (Kenny Lund photo)

Circle V Ranch Camp & Retreat Center in the Santa Ynez Valley is expected to reopen in 2019, nearly two years after the Whittier Fire raced through in July 2017, badly damaging the facility while trapping more than 100 campers and staff members for several hours.

The nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul of Los Angeles, which operates the camp, is rebuilding, and officials hope to have the doors open before the summer youth camp program begins next year.

“In a perfect world, we are up and running by the time our camp opens in July and August,” said David Fields, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Los Angeles. “There is high anticipation, and I think the kids and families will be happy.”

The wildfire ignited July 8, 2017, on a hillside above neighboring Camp Whittier and quickly spread through drought-parched vegetation. The fire ultimately burned 18,430 acres straddling both sides of the Santa Ynez Mountains near Lake Cachuma.

With erratic winds and towering flames blocking their exit in the early hours of the fire, 90 Circle V Ranch campers and additional staff sheltered in place under the protection of U.S. Forest Service firefighters until they could be safely evacuated. No injuries were reported.

“The parents were positive, and said their kids want to come back,” Fields said.

In addition to the damage at Circle V Ranch, the wildfire heavily damaged Camp Whittier, The Outdoor School and Rancho Alegre Boy Scout Camp, where most buildings burned to the ground.

The U.S. Forest Service later determined that a vehicle driving through tall grass sparked the fire, but no criminal charges have been filed.

The devastation was extensive at Circle V Ranch, a 30-acre property at 2550 Highway 154. The camp’s health and craft lodges were charred in the fire, which severely damaged the water treatment facility and pipes.

“The water filtration system burned to a crisp,” Fields told Noozhawk.

Flames burning near the entrance to Circle V Ranch Camp & Retreat Center prevented firefighters from evacuating campers and staff for several hours after the Whittier Fire started. Click to view larger
Flames burning near the entrance to Circle V Ranch Camp & Retreat Center prevented firefighters from evacuating campers and staff for several hours after the Whittier Fire started. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk file photo)

With no working water, all groups scheduled for the year and summer camp sessions were canceled for about 1,000 children.

Staff decided to temporarily close the camp after discovering the damage, and pledged to renovate the destroyed facilities.

Officials are considering purchasing additional safety equipment like emergency vehicles and communication devices, Fields said.

“It’s been a collaborative effort,” he said of the rebuilding. “We want to get the kids back to camp. We can use donations to help with incremental work.”

St. Vincent de Paul of Los Angeles is collecting donations to help with the renovations. Click here to make an online donation.

The organization also is hosting a benefit dinner and award ceremony on May 23 in Los Angeles to support the camp’s rebuilding effort.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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