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Tuesday, November 20 , 2018, 6:39 pm | Fair 59º


Minutes to Spare, Camp Whittier Staff Rush to Safety as Wildfire Burns Toward Them

Pam Nelson and Robert Fortune lose their Camp Whittier home to the fire, but most buildings were reportedly still standing as of Sunday afternoon

An out-building burns at Camp Whittier in the Santa Ynez Valley on Saturday. Click to view larger
An out-building burns at Camp Whittier in the Santa Ynez Valley on Saturday.  (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Pam Nelson said from the time she heard the initial call over the Camp Whittier radio it was half an hour later that she was driving away from her home where her and husband Robert “Cookie” Fortune lived.

“My husband retired and took a part-time job about eight years ago as maintenance for the camp, and we now have lived there for five years and it’s been the best experience,” Nelson said.

The weekend started like any other with a new group of people and Nelson’s grandchildren were up visiting with a friend and their two kids.

They were heading to the pool dressed in their bathing suits and flip flops when the fire call went out.

“There is no cell reception there so we all have radios to communicate. I remember Cookie asking if it was a kitchen fire so I told my friend to take the kids to the pool while I was listening. Then I heard crackling and saw smoke and within 20 minutes it was near my yard,” Nelson recalled.

Nelson’s husband ran from his position at the pool to look up the ridge and saw flames. He was the only staff on site as the group they were hosting didn’t need any kitchen staff or anything as they were preparing their own meals, Nelson said.

“I told my friend to take her kids and my grandson Walker with her and leave. My granddaughter Cassidy was with me because I needed help getting our animals,” she said.

Within 10 minutes the fire had approached her yard and she grabbed what little belongings she could and left with still her bathing suit, a t-shirt and sandals on.

Pam Nelson, right, and Robert Fortune lost their Camp Whittier home in the Whittier Fire, which started nearby on Saturday afternoon. Click to view larger
Pam Nelson, right, and Robert Fortune lost their Camp Whittier home in the Whittier Fire, which started nearby on Saturday afternoon.  (Courtesy photo)

“I have no idea if my house is still there. We tried to call this morning and the firefighters are too busy to take inventory, which I understand. I just feel awful because I was also watching the camp director’s house as they were gone for the weekend and I couldn’t get to their animals in time. I hope they made it,” Nelson said.

She went to People Helping People Saturday to get a few clothes and a trip to Lompoc to grab a few toiletries to last her for a while. They are staying with their daughter that lives in Solvang.

On Sunday, she let the Santa Ynez Valley Star know that her home did burn down. Most of Camp Whittier was standing as of Sunday afternoon, including the camp manager's house, and their animals were alive and safe.

A friend of the family started a GoFundMe account to help with incurring expenses and immediate needs

The Whittier Fire burned 7,800 acres with 5-percent containment as of Sunday morning, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Dave Zaniboni.

“The fire slowed down last night and the priority is to hit hard on the south side with many aircrafts starting this morning with drops,” he said.

“The brush fire that broke out yesterday was thought to have been ignited by a vehicle fire, but the cause is still under investigation and that report hasn’t been confirmed,” Zaniboni added.

Mandatory evacuation orders and evacuation warnings were issued Saturday and the latest areas can be found here. 

All campers and staff at Camp Whittier, Circle V Ranch Camp and Rancho Alegre were safely evacuated, however many structures have burned as reports of only the dining hall and one cabin at Rancho Alegre still stood.

Two vehicles were also destroyed including a sheriff's department vehicle. To see footage of the fire log onto our social media site such as Facebook to see live streaming video.

Authorities said those in the warning areas should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice with family members, pets, important documents and irreplaceable items.

Anyone with special needs and large animals should be evacuated immediately, they added.

Evacuation shelters have been opened at San Marcos High School, 4750 Hollister Ave. in Santa Barbara, and at Santa Ynez School, 3325 Pine St. in Santa Ynez.

[Click here for more stories from the Santa Ynez Valley Star.]

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