By Raiza Giorgi
The Whittier Fire swept through the forest on the north side of San Marcos Pass on July 8, 2017. Almost precisely a year later, on July 6, similar conditions sparked the Holiday Fire on the south side of the ridge.
With temperatures above 100 degrees and dry winds blasting down the slopes, the Holiday Fire leaped to fearful life on a Friday night, destroying homes and forcing 3,200 people to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
By the next day, firefighters had contained it at about 100 acres of destruction in the neighborhoods on North Fairview Road. At the Star’s press time, with the danger past, fire officials said 10 homes and 14 other structures had been destroyed and three more homes damaged, but no one had been killed. Suppression costs were estimated at $1.5 million.
As firefighters continued to seek out hot spots and helped residents return to their homes — or the remnants of their homes — in Goleta, the year-old Whittier burn scars remain obvious near Lake Cachuma.
Operators of several camps damaged by the Whittier Fire are still cleaning up while making plans to rebuild. One of them, Circle V Ranch Camp, had planned a dedication ceremony on Sunday, July 8, but postponed it in the face of continuing high temperatures and the number of firefighters who needed to be fighting the Holiday Fire
“I remember touring the camp after a few days when we were allowed, and the fire marshal grabbed me on the shoulder and said, ‘If you hadn’t done the fire abatement a few weeks ago, this camp would not be here,” recalled Michael Baker, CEO of the United Boys & Girls Club that operates another one, Camp Whittier.
Baker recently gave the Star a tour of the camp, recalling details about the day the fire broke out and what has transpired in the past year.
Just a month prior the Whitter Fire, camp managers Todd and Jenny Stepien asked Baker to hire a crew for fire abatement. The crew cleared brush, weed-whacked tall grass, and made sure there wasn’t any fuel near buildings.
“They are seriously the most special people, and I am so glad we hired them because I wouldn’t have though to do that. That’s why I run the program and they run the camp,” Baker said.
Not only did Baker give the Stepiens credit for their managerial skills, he also credited them for financial success.
“When I came to Santa Barbara County three years ago, the camp barely broke even. In the time that Todd and Jenny have been there they have made the camp so successful that it supplements our programs that lose money,” Baker said.
At the time of the Whittier Fire the camp was booked solid until the holidays. When the fire shut them down, their business insurance covered the cost of the damage. But the Boys & Girls Club lost more than six months of revenue that helps fund its programs around the county.
The United Boys & Girls Club is a nonprofit youth development agency that serves children from 5 to 18 years old at nine locations across the county.
“Our program is proof that when you do something right for the community that people will support you in times of need. We have seen so many amazing people step up since the fire to help us, and we turned around and helped our neighbors,” Baker added.
A neighboring facility, the Boy Scouts’ Rancho Alegre, was nearly leveled by the Whitter Fire. The camp also hosts Outdoor School, where students from all around the Central Coast learn about ecology and science.
“We (at Camp Whittier) immediately responded to their needs and since we still had many structures left and they needed a facility, as soon as we could open we invited the Boy Scouts to come and partake. It was a win-win for everyone,” Baker said.
Baker said that he and the Stepiens have been involved in planning the rebuilding and hope to have it completed by early next year. The girls’ cabins were destroyed, with just the two bathrooms remaining.
“The cabins would have been done by this summer, but everything got put on hold when the Thomas Fire and subsequent mudslides happened. It makes getting a permit and plans approved harder, as there are now more people in line to rebuild and the county is hypersensitive to code enforcement, with good reasons,” Baker said.
He particularly thanked two other people: board member Rich Ridgway, who has helped keep the rebuilding on track; and Tom Heath, an engineer who has helped at his expense to compile the plans for the new buildings and even done manual labor during the camp cleanup.
“Imagine trying to clean up food waste that was two weeks old and had been sitting in several days of weather over 100 degrees and then covered in ash. That was fun,” Baker said sarcastically.
Baker said there are opportunities for organizations and businesses to sponsor the rebuilding process. For a various levels of giving, donors can name the buildings that will be built or other projects such as the zip line and ropes course and the pool house.
“Our camp lost the first game, but we will ultimately win the series,” Baker added.
To help the United Boys & Girls Club rebuild, go to www.unitedbg.org/donate.
The Santa Ynez Valley Star will be talking to leaders of each camp near Lake Cachuma that was damaged in the Whittier Fire last summer and updating readers on their progress of rebuilding and the challenges along the way. This first story focuses on Camp Whittier.