Circle V Ranch Camp Rescue

  • By Andrew Madsen, Public Affairs Officer, Los Padres National Forest

A man dressed in Forest Service uniform stands next to his patrol vehicle.

U.S. Forest Service Patrolman Dave Dahlberg, from the Los Padres National Forest, stands next to his patrol vehicle he used to make contact with the campers. (USDA photo by Andrew Madsen)

The weather forecast for Saturday, July 8, had all the ingredients for a wildland fire start – unseasonably hot temperatures had been building since mid-week and, with Sundowner winds predicted to kick up Saturday night, the National Weather Service had issued a Red Flag Warning for Santa Barbara County. Los Padres National Forest had extended its fire staffing two days earlier, and by Saturday afternoon thermostats in the Santa Ynez Valley were pushing 110 degrees.

Dave Dahlberg was on 24-hour coverage as a field investigator on July 8 at the San Marcos Fire Station. Now in his seventh season as a Patrolman on Los Padres National Forest, Dahlberg was familiar with extreme fire weather and recognized the potential for a new fire start under these conditions.

Shortly after 1:45 pm, a fire was reported on State Highway 154 near the entrance to Camp Whittier and the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, and Dahlberg responded as part of the initial dispatch. Tying in with initial attack fire managers on scene, he first worked traffic control on the west end of Hwy. 154 until California Highway Patrol officers arrived and relieved him.

Santa Barbara District Fire Management Officer Mark Von Tillow had assumed the role of initial attack incident commander and was busy working with local cooperators to direct resources to where they were most needed. Von Tillow had learned that a large group of campers were trapped at the Circle V Ranch Camp on the south side of Hwy. 154. Von Tillow was acquainted with the Circle V, having organized two wildland fire training camps there, and knew the only access route in and out of the camp was an unpaved, narrow and winding road that now had active fire on both sides. 

Von Tillow conferred with Santa Barbara County Division Chief Steve Oaks—who was acting as Evacuation Group Supervisor—and apprised him of the situation and the need to get someone up the road to check on the campers. At 3 pm, Dahlberg was tapped to see if he could drive his patrol rig up the gauntlet after three earlier attempts by first responders had failed. As he headed up the smoke-filled road, the fire was burning on all sides.

“There were a few sections of the road where I couldn’t see the hood of my rig it was that smokey,” Dahlberg said.

Dahlberg was also familiar with the Circle V. He had participated in structure protection simulations at the Circle V in the past, and had assisted with the wildland fire training camp. When he arrived, he met the campers inside the dining hall along with a handful of staff members waiting outside. He assessed the situation, and decided the safest course of action for the campers, staff members, and counselors was to shelter in place.

Two men wearing firefighting uniforms stand looking at the camera.

Santa Barbara County Division Chief Steve Oaks and U.S. Forest Service Patrolman Dave Dahlberg, from the Los Padres National Forest. (USDA photo by Andrew Madsen)

“I told them we had air tankers and helicopters dropping on the fire, and we needed to open the road before we could get out,” Dahlberg said. “I told them we were safe where we were at. I tried to keep the counselors calm, because that would help keep the kids calm.”

Santa Barbara County Firefighter Mark Linane had offloaded his bulldozer near the entrance to Camp Whittier to begin cutting fire lines on the fire’s edge. When he heard there were children trapped at the Circle V, he turned his dozer and headed for the camp.

Dahlberg watched as air tankers made repeated drops between Hwy. 154 and the camp. Helicopters dropped water on flames as they burned perilously close to camp structures. He estimated the fire was between 600-700 feet from their location, backing down the ridge into the drainage.

“When the dozer got there, I immediately tied in with him,” Dahlberg recounted. “He started cutting line around the property. I stayed in constant radio contact with Chief Oaks so he was aware of our situation. I relayed how many people we had there, and he assured me they were working to open up the road.”

Oaks meanwhile was coordinating with the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Search & Rescue team to bring in the vehicles that would be used to extract the campers. At 4:30 pm, Search & Rescue had arrived and were staging at the Circle V entrance on Hwy. 154. Ten minutes later, Oaks directed the caravan to head up the road to camp. The extraction caravan arrived at the Circle V just before 5 pm, and immediately began coordinating with camp staff members to assign counselors, campers and staff members to vehicles.

At 5:30 pm, the caravan reached the intersection of the camp road and Hwy. 154. The children, counselors and staff members were transferred into two buses provided by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, and shuttled to the Mission Santa Ines to reunite with family members.

“After all the kids got out, it was probably a good 30 to 45 minutes that I stayed there at the camp,” Dahlberg said. “I was keeping the fire from impinging the structures, and making sure those structures weren’t going to catch fire.”

Dahlberg downplayed his role in the rescue, saying that anyone would have done the same. But what if there been no one else to brave the fiery road to reach the camp?

“I hate to think about it, but I don’t know if it would have worked out as well as it did if I hadn’t shown up,” he said. “They had a plan, and were following it. But more structures would have been lost, and some of the campers might have freaked out. My biggest role was just to calm everyone down.”