OAKHURST – The fourth day of Discovery Camp started out beautifully at Calvin Crest, where kids age 5-10 were set for a fun-filled morning and afternoon of activities on the charmed property nestled in the Sierra National Forest.
“Our first session of Discovery Day Camp is underway,” wrote counselors on the organization’s Facebook page. “What a joy it is to have children from our surrounding local communities learn and grow in such a beautiful place.”
By nightfall, the same kids referred to in the post, along with the camp’s staff, would return haggard, hungry, tired — and safe — from an hours-long detour in a 50-car caravan of 150 people, after being ordered to evacuate the Sky Fire.
The people in charge at Calvin Crest were first made aware of the fire just after 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 18, according to Joel Gist, Director of the Outdoor School. The summer session was underway with 30-plus day campers, some parents, and about 55 camp staff personnel on site. Fortunately, they’d spent the whole morning practicing their fire drill training for the season.
When the call came in alerting campers to the fire, Gist says, some were thinking it was another part of the fire drill. They could see a little smoke, though, and quickly realized this was the real thing, and went into action.
2:30 p.m. was also the time Oakhurst area mom and artist Courtney Lynn chose to drive her truck up the road to Calvin Crest to pick up her son Sage, 5, at Discovery Camp. She had just passed the Sky Ranch Restaurant when she noticed black smoke, stopping to take a picture in case she needed to report an incident.
“I came around a corner and traffic was stopped,” Courtney says. “There were three other cars with parents on the way to camp to pick up their kids, and a truck pulling a camping trailer.”
Ahead of them, a different truck, also pulling a trailer, was already engulfed in flames. The truck and trailer in front of Courtney, that wasn’t on fire, was in such a hurry to get away that he backed right into her Tacoma pickup, even as she blasted the horn. His spare wheel bounced off her truck as he self-evacuated without apology.
Suddenly facing an emergency situation in a location with no cell service, Courtney says she was shocked, and very worried. These first people on scene got in their vehicles, backed up quickly, then walked up to where some other cars were parked. Also on hand was Wasuma School principal Jason Mercier, and Wasuma teacher Christie Newell, and two other people Courtney didn’t know at the time.
Together, they all took charge. “We started turning everybody around before any help arrived.”
Courtney was in disbelief. “This whole truck is on fire, and it’s moving toward the trailer. I’m thinking we should back away because there are propane tanks.”
The small group quickly talked about options. Courtney was thinking about how to get Sage. “We have good access roads, there’s Sugar Pine, and the Nelder Grove area, and maybe we can take one of these routes.” Again, she thought about the propane and other gas tanks in the burning vehicle, saying, “We should move. We need to move. We are too close.” They returned to their vehicles.
The remaining group pulled further down the road. The woman who had been closest to the fire was tending to the elderly couple whose vehicle had ignited for as-yet-unknown reasons.
“They were out of their vehicle,” explains Courtney, “and the man had a pacemaker and was experiencing labored breathing. They were resting in the woman’s vehicle before being evacuated out.” Further information on the couple and the cause of the fire will be reported when available.
It wasn’t long before the group heard the first blast of a propane tank.
“It was scary and loud,” remembers Courtney, who began crying, she says, and hyperventilating. They drove yet further away from where their children were, and convened on the lawn at Sky Ranch. Courtney was beside herself, and left the group for a time to gain composure.
Now they began hearing sirens and seeing fire trucks go by, and they still needed to get their kids. Like many moms everyday, Courtney wasn’t just picking up her own child, she was supposed to be transporting someone else’s, as well.
“I was also responsible for my friend’s two children, so I was worried about my kid and my friend’s kids,” Dane and Deagan Toshiro. As Courtney furiously fretted, help in the form of responders continued to arrive.
“We sat and watched as trucks and then the plane appeared, and an older woman came and prayed with all of us.” Their spirits began to lift, though not for long.
“We thought, maybe this won’t get out of hand. The road will be closed, and now we’re going to figure out how we are going to get the kids.”
Soon the smoke from the fire turned very black and Courtney says it became obvious the fire was not going to be contained right away.
“About twelve trucks went by us, and bulldozers, and then I got a phone call from my friend Rachel Miller.”
Rachel is another mom who was heading up to Calvin Crest for pickup that memorable day. Rachel had been lucky, you could say, traveling a couple of cars ahead of the fire that Courtney was stuck behind. Rachel and other parents were able to get to the camp before the road in was closed.
Her friend said the words that Courtney was longing to hear. “I’m with Sage,” confirmed Rachel, mother of Lucas, adding that the kids were unaware of any danger; they were having fun, and the adults were waiting to hear if they needed to evacuate.
Courtney was also, by then, talking by phone with camp officials Ryan and Andrea McKenzie. They were ready to leave if necessary, but it didn’t seem like an issue at that time.
Less than an hour later, the situation changed again.
“Rachel called back and said, ‘they’re making us evacuate and we’re leaving… do you want me to grab Sage?’ I said yes, grab Sage.”
Rachel wondered if she should also evacuate the other two children Courtney was responsible for. Courtney was momentarily conflicted, because the moms involved didn’t know one another personally. Still, there was no question, ultimately, what to do: grab all the kids.
“Rachel said, ‘we’re leaving now,’ and I started freaking out again,” Courtney recounts.
Meanwhile, up at Calvin Crest, things were fairly calm considering the potential for chaos. Since they’d already spent a care-free morning practicing fire drills and safety, campers and staff were busy approaching their responsibilities with cautious optimism.
They closed down their propane tanks and prepared the property for fire, Gist says. Between staff, the parents already on site, and those other parents who were able to get through the fire, enough cars and trucks were available to start a caravan and get everyone out safely.
Calvin Crest staff posted on Facebook for the second time that day; the afternoon message was vastly different from the morning’s cheery reassurance.
“A vehicle fire was reported a mile or so away. We have evacuated the Day Campers and the staff is standing by when the sheriffs arrive to evacuate the staff.”
When the Madera County Sheriffs showed up to escort the people out of Calvin Crest, they were ready to go.
Back in Oakhurst, Courtney and the other parents had received their marching orders from authorities.
“We heard we were supposed to go to Sierra Vista Church and we’d see the kids there, so I called my boyfriend and my mom, and we headed over to the church with the other parents. We were super stressed out, worried, afraid, and feeling helpless. We were watching the fire grow, watching from the church windows. It was bright in the daylight, with the ponderosa pines lighting up like torches on fire.”
They heard the kids were being evacuated by caravan.
“It was very slow, with more than 150 people in 50-plus vehicles, with the Sheriffs’ vehicle escorting them from Cold Springs Summit, down Beasore. It took a long time.”
Finally, around 6 p.m. Thursday night, hours after leaving camp, the kids, parents, counselors and other staff from Calvin Crest arrived at Sierra Vista Church in Oakhurst. The families rejoiced as they were reunited with their loved ones.
“The older kids, in 5th grade and up, looked distressed with the severity of the situation,” Courtney says. “The younger kids didn’t seem to care, or were excited they’d had a back country 4-wheel drive adventure.”
Courtney, her boyfriend Max, and mother Sandy scooped Sage up and, naturally, Courtney had some questions.
“Hi! How are you? What happened? Are you scared, excited? How did that make you feel?”
Sage’s primary sentiment was happiness. Courtney says he was excited he didn’t have to ride in the car seat the whole way down the mountain.
They were hungry, thirsty, and tired — but they were home.
One day after the fire began, about 20 young Calvin Crest staff members found themselves still at Sierra Vista church.
That wasn’t a bad thing at all, Calvin Crest’s Joel Gist says, noting an outpouring of support from the community. The displaced staff was invited to see the new Jurassic Park movie on-the-house by the folks at Met Cinema, so they were having fun.
By Saturday morning, they’d been newly decked out in the finest wardrobe North Fork Parish Outreach Thrift Store could offer, so they have a change of clothes. Through Sierra Vista and other safe outlets, campers were finding temporary homes with families to match, to help them until the fire passes.
After what may have seemed like the longest day ever, Courtney’s main sentiment echoes that of area residents grateful for the all the professionals we encounter that do their jobs so well.
“Thank you to the firefighters and Calvin Crest staff, our friends, and other parents, for keeping the kids safe and accounted for and getting them out of there.”
Special thanks to Courtney Lynn and Calvin Crest for the use of photos.
Now that we’re in the midst of a busy fire season, Courtney and Sandy have some good take-aways following their harrowing experience of evacuation from camp. They suggest the following precautions, when possible:
1. Keep your cell phone charged so you can contact people, be contacted, and call 911 if necessary.
2. Stock the car with pantry snacks and water in case you need to take a long detour with kids.
3. Keep your gas tank full just in case you have to drive the long way to get in or out of some place.
4. Exchange phone numbers with a few parents participating in any activity your child will attend, so you have a handful of different people to contact in case of emergency.