Eight months ago, Rancho Alegre Boy Scout Camp and Outdoor School was a smoking ruin of blackened trees and brush, the gutted hulks of what had been vehicles and mounds of debris — twisted sheet metal, melted aluminum, destroyed appliances and skewed water pipes pointing skyward. Only three structures remained standing.
Today, all the rubble has been cleared away, new leaves are beginning to appear on some of the trees and shrubs, and grasses are pushing up through the ravaged soil at the camp nestled among the slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains south of Cachuma Lake.
“There’s a lot of green up there,” said Carlos Cortez, Scouting executive for the Los Padres Council of Boy Scouts of America. “Nature’s coming back.”
When it was located at Rancho Alegre, the Outdoor School was used by some 4,000 fifth- and sixth-graders from local schools who spent a day, an overnighter or a week there learning about nature.
The Outdoor School has also come back, although the number of students has dropped to 1,700. It’s currently operating under a lease through June at Camp Whittier, located just a short distance west near Highway 154. The Whittier fire, which damaged both camps, ignited July 8 and roared southeast through Circle V Ranch Camp, then the Boy Scout camp.
What hasn’t come back yet are the 47 Rancho Alegre buildings that were destroyed, and that had been used every year by church groups and nonprofit organizations as well as the many Scouts for archery, swimming and rowing, crafts, astronomy, camping, hiking and learning about the native plants and animals.
But it doesn’t mean Los Padres Council is sitting still. Cortez said a lot has been done in the last eight months, and when the camp is rebuilt, it will incorporate features many of those who have used or still use the camp suggested and requested.
“We’re going to do it right and make it better than it’s ever been,” Cortez said.
Just which of the many suggested features can be incorporated will be determined through the planning process with the design and engineering firms already hired to prepare infrastructure and rebuilding plans using input from stakeholders.
But several ideas have floated to the top of the list.
“We’re thinking of adding a mountain bike track,” Cortez said. “You know, we have 215 acres here total, and there’s a lot of rough terrain that it would be good to ride in. So that would become one of our programs.”
Another potential addition is a Discovery Center, where youths would take everything they learn outdoors in nature and apply it in science experiments.
Cortez said the center could include a large observatory and modules on moviemaking and cinematography, robotics and computer programming and development.
“We’re also talking about adding some camping opportunities for people who have never experienced that before,” he said. “It would be a safe, family-friendly environment. There would be no alcohol like you find at other campgrounds.”
Tent cabins with heating would be available for those with younger children and “our senior Scouts who don’t do well with camping on cold, hard ground,” Cortez said.
“Basically, you’d show up with a sleeping bag, and we’d do the rest,” he said.
A more extensive “Cope Course” than the one the camp had will likely be included in the reconstruction.
“There’ll be a rope bridge, a climbing tower, a giant swing, but with more dynamic and exciting elements,” Cortez said.
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After demolishing the remains of the burned-up buildings and clearing the camp of debris at the end of November, the Los Padres Council and volunteers installed erosion controls in December to be sure the site was ready for any heavy rains that might come.
With services donated by Stantec and S&S Seed, the council installed K-rails, sand bags and hay bales and seeded some areas to protect the dining hall, pool building, bridge and roads that survived the fire, and the measures helped.
While some debris washed down from above the Rancho Alegre property during the storm on Jan. 9, the only impact was some minor problems at the Larson Meadow bridge. A crew that was on-site that day was able to clear debris and keep water flowing in the creek.
After demolition, debris clearing and erosion control work was completed, the dedicated group of council volunteers that formed the Phoenix Committee, began holding stakeholder meetings to collect information from camp users, “what they’d like to see, what worked and what didn’t, how they envision the camp when it’s rebuilt,” Cortez said.
Last weekend, Los Padres Council officials and Phoenix Committee members met at the camp with representatives of RRM Design Group and Stantec for a daylong workshop to go over information gathered at the stakeholder workshops and start a first draft of what the camp will look like in the future, he said.
“Next we’ll develop a blueprint for the design, then we’ll review it to see what we missed or need deleted,” Cortez said.
All that will take money, of course.
Cortez said the camp’s insurance carrier will cover up to $7 million of the reconstruction costs, which are estimated to total $11 million.
To make up the $4 million funding gap, Los Padres Council plans to launch a capital campaign within the next 30 to 60 days with help from fundraising consultants.
Although the council has not yet done any fundraising specifically for rebuilding the camp, some money has come in to support the project.
Back on Sept. 30, even before the Whittier fire was officially declared contained, Boy Scout Troop 41 staged a concert featuring Dylan Ortega, Eric Chesser, James Robert Webb and Jamie Lee Thurston at the Solvang Festival Theater that raised $60,000.
Cortez said donors throughout Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties also have pledged $250,000.
Even though the capital campaign has yet to launch, the Los Padres Council and Phoenix Committee hope individuals and businesses will step up and donate to the cause.