Forest Fire: A Crisis Reality for Camp

During the summer of 2000, two camps located in the western United States faced the challenging crisis of forest fire. Don Brown and Rhonda Mickelson share their experiences.

Please describe the event.

Don Brown — On July 31, a forest fire had spread from twenty-six acres the night before to 2,800 acres by mid morning just beyond the ridge to the east of the American Wilderness Leadership School (AWLS) site. The U.S. Forest Service sent out members of their fire team to check our facilities. They warned us that the sheriff may close the road into the canyon and evacuate all campers from the Forest Service campground that is just one mile to the north of the school, our school, and all occupants in the summer homes just to the south of the school. The firefighters’ biggest concern was that the fire would cross Granite Creek, which runs to the east of the school and, with the prevailing winds, the summer homes and the AWLS site would be in the direct path of the expanding fire. We were informed that if the evacuation became a reality, we would be housed at the new high school facilities in Jackson, Wyoming, and fall under the Red Cross emergency shelter program.

Rhonda Mickelson — We experienced two fires — although neither was actually encroaching on camp property, we were evacuated as a precaution because of the unpredictable nature of the fires, extreme fire conditions, and our location. I’m going to talk mainly about the first. Flying ‘G’ Ranch is located in a relatively remote area — six miles up a dirt road that is about one and a half lanes wide the majority of the way. There is no development between the main highway and camp — the closest gas station is about a forty-five-minute drive. As we do not transport campers for any of our programs, the vehicles on property were the personal cars of staff members, one leased SUV used for office trips and doctor runs, and the vehicles used by the site manager (truck and horse trailer). We had less than twenty vehicles on property. This also factored into our evacuations.

Our first evacuation was the first full day of camp for the season (Monday, June 12, 2000). It was a seven-day session. Everyone on staff was new to the site (including me), so we had already been figuring out many logistical aspects of camp throughout training. We had just completed our fire drill for the session and sent campers back to their units and program areas and were making the notes on what was good and what needed to be changed. As I walked into the office, the first words I heard were “fire, let me have you talk to the director.” This was about 2 p.m. The person on the phone was a parent, asking me what we were doing about the fire, were we okay, what our plans were. I told her that we had not yet heard of the fire and had neither seen nor smelled smoke. I promised to get back to her very soon to inform her of our status and plans.

From that point on, I was on the phone almost continually — either with parents, the sheriff’s department, or our office in Denver. My first phone call was to the sheriff’s department. I immediately stated who I was, where I was calling from, that I had 144 campers, and that I had to know the status of the fire — where it was, what our danger was, etc. The dispatcher told me that mandatory evacuations were being ordered for a certain area and we were not included. I was told to stay tuned to the TV (not possible, as we do not have TV) and to leave if we saw flames. We hung up.

What were your next actions?

Don Brown — During this one-day notice to prepare for a potential evacuation, I directed all staff to load their personal belongings into their vehicles. I instructed those who did not have a vehicle to place their belongings in the school’s blue bus. Staff also gathered sleeping bags, extra pillows, blankets, water containers, food, etc. We also packed program equipment and had it organized to take with us if we had to evacuate. We also made sure to have copies of all camper information on file ready to go with us along with office supplies, paper, one computer, and printer.

On August 1, while assigned staff made their scheduled trips (forty-two miles one way) into the Jackson Hole Airport to meet teachers/educators who were coming in from all over the United States, I met with fire fighting personnel who were assigned property protection responsibilities. We went over the AWLS utilities map — locating gas, water, and electrical lines, breaker boxes, the storage shed for camping fuel, vehicle gas tank and pump, LP gas tanks, and storage shed for ammunition and black powder used in our shooting sports program. We were advised where to park equipment and machinery that we could not remove if evacuated. The fire fighting crew was impressed with the detail of our site map and the two 1,000-gallon water-holding tanks fed by stream flow, with fire pump and hose to reach all facilities. We were also given directions to close all windows and doors to prevent embers from getting into a building.

By 4:30 p.m., we had forty-three of the forty-nine participants on the AWLS site. When they registered upon arrival, they were instructed to live out of their luggage and not to unpack, as we may have to evacuate if told to do so. Also during registration, I asked volunteers who had commercial driver’s licenses or had experience driving fifteen-passenger vans, since most of the staff would be driving their own vehicles or one of the other school vehicles. The volunteers’ names and driver’s license information were called into the Tucson office and forwarded on to our vehicle insurance company.

At 5:00 p.m., the Teton County Sheriff arrived and informed us that the road into the school had been closed and we were to evacuate. He asked how much time I would need to get ready. I informed him that we had supper ready to serve, but we could be loaded up within the hour. We were told to line all our vehicles up along the road by our entrance by 7 p.m. At that time, we would be guided out of the valley.

Rhonda Mickelson — The phone calls and actions went something like this:

  1. I called our office in Denver to find out what they knew and to let my supervisor know what was going on and what I had been told. I strongly urged she have the Council’s public relations department craft a statement that our front desk receptionist could read to any parent calling to ask about the situation. Basically, this was to include the information that camp was fine — no smoke visible or odor and that we were in contact with the authorities regarding what to do. Programming was continuing.
     
  2. As the smoke from the fire was very evident from Denver and was spreading fast, it was a major media event on all the Denver TV stations. From what I heard, the video footage was scary. Each time I would get off the phone, I had several voice mail messages from parents asking me what was happening at camp, were we leaving, etc. We moved the phone from the staff lounge and began using that line for all outgoing calls (return calls to parents, the office, etc.) so our published line was more available. All parents that called camp received return calls throughout the afternoon.
     
  3. At about 3:15 p.m., I once again called the sheriff’s department and talked with another dispatcher to find out more about what was going on. This individual knew of camp, knew our location, and asked me how many campers/staff and how many vehicles. She stated she would get back to me as soon as she knew anything and that in the meantime, to have all campers and staff remain on property. Phone calls to/from parents continued.
     
  4. The dispatcher called about an hour later to let me know that the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department was going to have us evacuated and that they would be providing the transportation. She would call me as soon as she knew more about the method and time. She asked that I get all campers and staff in one location. Each individual would be allowed to bring a daypack.
     
  5. I immediately called our Denver office and let my supervisor know this plan. She began working with others in our office (public relations department, assistant executive directors, etc.) to formulate a plan to contact parents once they had the evacuation method and locations determined.
     
  6. I had all unit staff return to their units and deployed all program staff to assist me as we prepared for the evacuation. I gave them the instructions to work in pairs and go to each unit and have staff and their campers prepare their daypacks with water bottle, jacket, flashlight, etc. and come to the flag area. Those delivering the message to the units could answer staff questions to the extent they knew answers — but we did not tell campers. Once everyone was assembled in the flag area, staff members were instructed to lead songs, play games, etc. It was our plan to continue the day in as normal manner as possible.
     
  7. Shortly after 5 p.m., I received the call that buses from Jefferson County schools were coming to pick up campers and staff members. We anticipated arrival time to be 6:45 to 7 p.m. Buses would take us to Conifer High School — about fifteen miles west of Denver. Parents/guardians could pick up campers at this location. I again talked to our Denver office and let them know the plan from the sheriff’s department. They started the process of calling camper parents/guardians.
     
  8. While a couple of staff members stayed with the campers, I assembled all the rest of the staff to go over the situation and plan. I stressed the importance of remaining calm, positive, and reassuring. Staff with cars would drive their cars out; all other staff would ride the bus with their units. We had full camper lists (several) and would have campers ride buses by units (about twenty-four girls in each of six units).
     
  9. With the campers in the dining hall, I explained the situation. Most campers accepted this information very well, although we had a few tears. We were also able to tell campers their parents/guardians had been called and would be meeting them at the high school.
     
  10. The Denver office relayed the evacuation plans to the local news media, and it was being broadcast on TV.
     
  11. The health supervisor collected all camper/staff medication along with the appropriate logbooks and the camper/staff health forms to take with us. We also had several smaller first aid kits. The administrative staff made copies of camper lists so we could check off campers as they boarded the buses, etc. They also pulled together all camper forms as well as staff applications. We also took all documentation for our international staff.
     
  12. Shortly after dinner, three buses pulled into camp along with a sheriff’s department representative — our escort out. As we had six units and three buses, we put two units on each bus. As a camper got on a bus, we marked her name off the list. Campers were not allowed to disembark from the bus! We also marked which staff were on each bus, and I knew which staff were in cars. Each bus had an emergency pack that included additional water bottles, whistles, flashlights, paper towels, and plastic bags (in case of carsickness).
     
  13. Just before the buses left the camp property, we verified with the sheriff’s department that we were still going to the same location, and I let the Denver office know this.
     
  14. Staff cars were to follow the buses — caravan style. As camp director, I was to be the last staff person driving out. Our site manager stayed on property. All horses were let out in the pasture (how the horses were going to be taken care of was of large concern to both campers and staff). We left camp property about 7:30 – 8 p.m.

What happened next?

Don Brown — We spent the next fourteen days at the Jackson High School. We were able to conduct all of our regular fieldtrips and program activities except the shooting sports program. Out of the forty-nine participants scheduled, forty-six stayed through the total program.

We cancelled the last AWLS session as we had time to inform incoming teachers of the situation and gave them their choice of session to attend in 2001. I was aware of the expenses that the Red Cross paid for and at the end of the month, with approval of the Safari Club International Executive Committee, made a donation of $1,800 to the local Red Cross on behalf of AWLS and the SCI Foundation.

Rhonda Mickelson — The ride to the high school was basically uneventful, and we arrived there about 9 p.m. We did see the flames from the fire, although it never got closer than eight miles to our property. One of our executive directors from the Denver office, individuals from the Red Cross, the principal of the high school, and the media met us. By 11 p.m., all campers were retrieved by parents, guardians, or emergency contacts. Since most of our staff were not from the Denver area, offers were made to help house camp staff. By midnight, all staff had a place to sleep, and I had a list of where all staff were staying along with phone numbers. They were told they would hear from me around noon the next day to let them know the next steps.

What advance planning stood you in good stead and helped you and your camp to be ready for the crisis?

Don Brown — The plot map of all utilities was invaluable. Fortunately, maintenance had removed all dead growth around the cabins, and the grass around the buildings was green from watering — in spite of the dry forest conditions. We had a good working relationship with the local sheriff’s office and Forest Service personnel. Our detailed risk management plan covered evacuation procedures, and we maintained good coordination with the main office in Tucson to respond to calls. The office records were such that by taking the two-drawer file cabinet, all information on current and coming participants was available. We also had copies of this information at the Tucson office.

Rhonda Mickelson — Between ACA accreditation, Colorado regulations (all resident camps in Colorado are licensed by the Department of Human Services), and the standards set forth by the Girl Scouts, I feel we were well prepared to handle this type of situation. We have an extensive flow chart specifically designed for fire evacuation (our biggest concern). I was able to use this as a guideline. We had also worked with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, and they know of our location and transportation situation. And, while we all do fire drills, we felt this situation did not warrant a true “fire drill” to be called. We felt keeping everything/everyone as calm as possible was the better choice, and we had the time. All staff fully understood the importance of knowing where all campers were at all times and fully assisted with this — even by following campers to the bathrooms, making sure no camper was alone, etc.

What parts of the experience were unexpected, and how have you now made what you learned part of your planning/preparation?

Don Brown — This experience was also a trial run for the local Red Cross. One need that was addressed for future emergencies is to have a phone bank available on site for those who did not have a cell phone or had to wait for the one pay phone to become available at the school. Our fire fighting equipment and emergency plan prior to the 2000 fire were more than adequate and received praise from the firefighters. We have since installed an upgraded fire extinguishing system in the kitchen. During our on-site orientation with each new session, we distribute a handout on what to do if a fire should occur. We keep an extra list of participants and where they are staying for that session at the fire station hut and also in a box on the front porch of a staff member’s cabin located away from the office. During staff training, all camp staff are a part of the precamp demonstration of the use of fire extinguishers and our fire fighting equipment. Staff are assigned primary duties to perform in case of a fire along with a back-up staff.

I was not expecting the assistance provided by the Red Cross. During the first five days at the evacuation site, all meals, etc., were under the control and expense of the Red Cross. On day five, we were given two hours to return to the AWLS site and get anything we needed. We resupplied our groceries and from then on provided our own kitchen staff and cooked our own meals.

Rhonda Mickelson — Since I was handling all communications from camp, it was not difficult to insure a consistent message. It was not as easy with our Denver office because varied people could answer the main line plus staff could be reached on their direct lines. Providing the individual who answers the phone with a written script has to happen immediately in any crisis.

Not all parents/guardians had accurate emergency contact information on their camper’s application. Some had emergency contacts that did not know they were listed as such; some parents had moved, changed jobs, etc. This resulted in additional phone calls and research to inform parents and guardians. As a result of this, we now include the significance of the emergency information in our registration materials — including a statement that the emergency contact individual must be available during the duration of camp and should be asked if he or she is willing to serve in this role. We have also added additional lines to our application for parent/guardian cell phone and pager numbers.

While we did follow the correct procedures regarding the health forms, staff records, medications, etc. (taking them with us), those items need to be included in a checklist of “what to take when you leave the property.” Also, depending upon how campers and staff are being transported, you might have to consider who carries the health forms and medication. As we were in a convoy, we chose to have the health supervisor keep all medication and health forms with her. All camper and staff records were with me in a separate vehicle. We also have a copy of each of these forms in our Denver office.

What were the realities of working with government officials, outside resources (fire department, law enforcement, mental health clinics, etc.), the media, and parents for which preparation is possible?

Don Brown — We received a lot of support from the local government officials — especially the Forest Service. Our camp does several trail maintenance programs with them each year, and they are also part of our educational program in presenting the Forest Service’s multiple use management concept to our adult participants. We have an open door policy welcoming employees of the sheriff’s office, Wyoming Game and Fish, and the Forest Service.

We had a lot of press come into Jackson High School and attend the evening fire update reports. One reporter wanted to return to take pictures of the participants getting ready for bed and sleeping on the folding cots laid out in the school gym. In this case, he was informed that the gym was off limits to any press personnel. The Red Cross manned a desk at the school at all times during the first four days of the fire and had counseling services available to anybody who desired it.

Rhonda Mickelson — As mentioned above, we were in touch with the sheriff’s department so they ”knew we were there.” I found it was crucial to talk with the same person in the sheriff’s department to avoid repeating myself and receiving conflicting information. When we opened for the 2001 season, we realized how important a good relationship with the authorities is. There was fire danger again, but this time my contact at the department called me for the number of campers and number of vehicles should an evacuation be necessary. Luckily — it was not.

By having the sheriff’s department mandate our evacuation, they also provided the transportation that enabled our evacuation to go much more smoothly and quickly. As I mentioned, we have basically a one-lane dirt road leading to our camp, so we carefully orchestrate opening and closing day. If parents came to evacuate the campers, it would have been a nightmare! All parents that called were asked NOT to come to camp to retrieve their camper.

How did you work with your campers — during the crisis and after the crisis was resolved?

Don Brown — Because our campers are adults, we kept them informed at all times about what was happening and what we were doing. They attended all the briefings, and we tried to bring in ways that this first-hand experience could be used in their classroom curriculum. We followed up with letters at the end of the summer along with an evaluation form that resulted in super comments on how they felt the AWLS staff did everything in our power to make the experience an enjoyable one. We also received digital photos of the fire area, fire crews, and updated maps that were made available to those who wanted them.

Rhonda Mickelson — We did our best to keep things “as normal as possible” during the evacuation process. We did let campers know what was going on . . . we let them know earlier in the process the second time than we did the first time. We actually tried to have them look at the experience as a true adventure and one they would remember always. We continually stressed that we were leaving so we would be safe and that we were not in danger.

After the first evacuation, we felt it important to have some sort of closure to the very short session. We did our best to accomplish this when campers and parents came to pick up luggage. They also received their camp T-shirt at this time. This group of campers all received full refunds and the opportunity to register for any open sessions we had throughout the rest of the summer (many did this). They also had the opportunity to register for 2001 sessions a week earlier than other potential campers.

For our second evacuation, once campers had returned to camp, we did our best to continue the program as scheduled and rescheduled what we needed to and could.

All campers and staff were very sensitive to fire and the fire potential. We modified our fire drills so these would be less “stressful.” When I hired staff mid-season, I disclosed all that we had dealt with previously so they might better understand some of the comments and concerns. We did have some campers cancel for the 2000 season, and they received full refunds.

We were still dealing with the residual of the 2000 fires in 2001 — with both campers/parents and staff. This situation was not helped when parents saw a small forest fire on the opening day of the first session. Several parents asked if it was safe to leave their daughters at camp with a fire just down the road. An immediate call to the fire dispatcher led us to comfortably believe it was safe. Luckily, we started receiving rain mid-season, and all fire bans were lifted for our area. We still had VERY small (if any) campfires.

What recommendations do you have for other camp professionals in the event of an unexpected camp crisis?

Don Brown — Have a good understanding of what the community can and will provide such as living and feeding accommodations. Who is that community contact person or agency? The biggest asset that I was able to produce, mainly because of the school’s ACA accreditation, was the plot map of all utilities, buildings, gas tanks, etc., for the Forest Service firefighters assigned to protect our structures. We were fortunate to have a twenty-four-hour notice on the potential evacuation. You will never have a plan that covers all the details, so hire good people who can think on their feet. Keep supervisors, staff, and participants informed about what you are doing. This helps all involved cope with the situation better. The seminars attended during ACA Conferences, Section events, and accreditation workshops and the sharing of information among ACA members and staff over the years all played a part in dealing with the fire situation which we faced.

Rhonda Mickelson — Remember to use the resources you have prepared — have the plans handy, make sure you and other staff have reviewed them, make notes as to who might do what. And, be flexible. Maintain a sense of calmness — for all concerned. Ask for help and advice! Delegate — even small tasks — it helps others feel they have a purpose and can prevent panic. Be ready to give each other a break at times. During our second evacuation, staff were feeling the pressure much more and needed more frequent breaks. We were able to accomplish this by rotating the staff who were leading the songs and games, etc. Do create the space for this to happen and also be ready for staff who may have emotional difficulties dealing with the stress. Ask them what they need and be ready to listen.

Be ready for whatever hits the media . . . wherever! Girl Scouts being evacuated from a camp because of a forest fire made CNN in London! We had Girl Scouts from our council hear about this while they were traveling. Be proactive in your communications — have written communication so all who talk about the incident say the same thing! Make sure this is done immediately so inaccurate and false information is not given. Have one designated spokesperson, and anyone else can only read from the given script (absolutely necessary on the front lines).

Sharing and networking with others is one of the greatest assets of our industry. Seek this out so others may learn from your successes and failures and you may do the same.

Donald J. Brown, Director of Education

  • Safari Club International Foundation
  • American Wilderness Leadership School
  • Camp Location — 32 miles southeast of Jackson, Wyoming
  • Size of Camp — 33.6 acres
  • Number of Campers — approximately 47 per eight-day session
  • Camp Affiliation: Nonprofit
  • Type of Camp: Adult Conservation/Outdoor Education
  • General Number of Staff: 16

Rhonda Mickelson, Camp Administrator, Camp Director

  • Flying ‘G’ Ranch
  • Camp Location — Near Deckers, Colorado, 1½ hours southwest of Denver — surrounded by Pike National Forest
  • Number of Campers: 144
  • Camp Affiliation — Girl Scouts of America, Mile Hi Council.
  • Type of Camp — Resident camp, campers come for seven or thirteen days. Traditional camp program that includes outdoor skills, challenge course, horseback riding, hiking, crafts, backpacking, and a homestead program. We operate two resident camps and have two to three sessions of day camp going on during any given week from early June through early August.
  • General Number of Staff: 38

Originally published in the 2002 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.

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