The Donnell Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California, began on August 1, 2018, and was much smaller than other fires that burned throughout California in the state’s deadliest fire season on record. When the Donnell Fire began, Executive Director Jason Poisson had just opened Camp Jack Hazard to a group from another camp who had lost access to their facility due to another fire. That group, PSI World from San Francisco, had contacted Poisson only days prior, and Poisson had rushed to make the camp ready for an unscheduled group escaping the destructive effects of the large Mendocino Complex Fire, which had begun on July 27. The group spent five days at Camp Jack Hazard, during which the Donnell Fire began.
While the PSI World group was still on-site, Poisson and his staff prepared for an important annual event: the Camp Jack Hazard Annual Alumni Weekend. More than 50 camp alumni and their families would be coming to the camp for this annual event. This year, it would end with the gathered camp alumni being evacuated as the Donnell Fire raced up the mountain toward their camp. Poisson’s handling of that event, his communication with his camp’s community in the days that followed, and his role in the longer-term resuscitation of the nearly 100-year-old camp are this camp’s “phoenix” story.
Poisson first came to Camp Jack Hazard in 1992, when he was 16 years old. He came on the recommendation of a coworker at another camp, an adult mentor who encouraged him to put distance between himself and the trouble he was getting into in his hometown near the California coast. Poisson came to the camp as an assistant counselor — a volunteer job that paid nothing and required long shifts supervising children on backpacking trips in the backcountry of Stanislaus National Forest. Poisson says he felt immediately as though he was returning to a place he already knew, despite the fact that the camp was 200 miles from home. He stayed with the work, returning each summer as he rose through the ranks of camp staff to eventually become the camp director. The camp, at that time, was run by the YMCA of Stanislaus County. Poisson worked for the camp and the YMCA for 11 years.
During the years Poisson worked at the camp, he met his future wife, Emiley Horlak. Unlike Poisson, Horlak came from a family with long ties to Camp Jack Hazard. She attended the camp as a child, as had her mother before her. And as her mother had, Horlak and her two younger sisters eventually worked at the camp.
Horlak and Poisson were counselors together, and eventually worked together as co-directors of the camp. He proposed to her at the camp, in the dining hall that serves as the center of camp social activity, in front of the collected young staff in 2000. They both worked for the YMCA in Modesto during the off-season.
Even after leaving their camp jobs, the Poissons remained informally involved. Both were now working as local high school teachers — Poisson was known as “Mr. Fish” among his students — and they encouraged some of their students to apply to work at the summer camp. The Poisson home became an informal meeting place and Poissons mentors for the newer staff running the camp, many of whom had been junior staff when the Poissons were camp directors.
The Poissons learned through that mentorship that the camp was struggling. The YMCA of Stanislaus County was having financial problems and, in 2007, completely shuttered its Modesto facility, which had included a gym, two pools, racquetball courts, and a range of childcare programs. The 45-year-old facility was sold to pay off some of the more than $2-million debt that the YMCA had accumulated.
Selling the facility meant closing most of their programs, but the YMCA continued to support three programs that were not tied to the building: a youth sports league, an off-site daycare program, and the summer camp in the mountains. Without the feeder programs from the YMCA facility in Modesto, however, summer camp enrollment declined even further.
A Hundred-Year Legacy
Camp Jack Hazard began in 1924. The first decades involved simple tent camping among the pine forests and granite cliff faces of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Jack Hazard, an employee of the local YMCA, took groups of boys camping in the mountains during the summer. His wife, Buena Vista Hazard, eventually began taking groups of girls camping as well. The husband-and-wife team continued taking Modesto-area youth there each summer, and in 1928 the US Forest Service granted the group a permit to a permanent location.
While the permit made the location permanent, the facilities continued to be temporary: simple tents and an outdoor kitchen. In the 1930s, a swimming pool was added, and the first permanent building was erected in 1949.
By the time Poisson came to the camp in the 1990s, there were 12 sleeping cabins, a large dining hall and kitchen, two shower houses, and four additional buildings (a director’s cabin, a nurse’s cabin, an administrative building, and a round, open building used for arts and crafts). During Poisson’s tenure, a high and low elements ropes course was added.
The facility had always been rustic — including outhouses, outdoor sinks consisting of pipes hanging over long steel troughs, and a dining hall with a cracked concrete floor and open-beam ceiling. The simple buildings were shuttered each fall after the camping season ended, and remained inaccessible after the first snowfall, when the narrow state highway leading up the mountain to Camp Jack Hazard was closed for the winter. Each spring, the facility was reopened as the snow melted, and camp directors would find squirrel nests in cabins, roofs damaged by heavy snowfall, and sometimes even a kitchen ransacked by a bear.
Over the years, a fiscally sound YMCA and dedicated community partners kept the camp facility in shape, but a declining YMCA was not able to maintain this upkeep. Shrinking enrollment and weakening financial support were threatening the camp’s viability. In the early 2000s, Poisson joined another former camp director, Skippy Williams, to create a nonprofit to help support the camp. Their plan was to raise money to send youth to camp, increasing enrollment by providing scholarships. Poisson and Williams created an alumni membership organization and used alumni dues to fund “camperships.” One small perk for dues-paying members was a chance to return to the camp for an annual alumni weekend.
Poisson and Williams named their nonprofit “The Jack and Buena Foundation,” after the founders of the camp. Camp alumni served as board members, and others joined as founding members. In the first two summers of operation, the Jack and Buena Foundation provided scholarships to a third of the camp’s attendees.
In early 2011, Poisson and Williams learned that the YMCA was planning to close the camp completely. They worked with their board of directors to come up with a plan to save the camp. The Jack and Buena Foundation offered to pay the YMCA’s remaining debts and take over camp operations. The YMCA agreed, retaining ownership of the camp buildings (the land was owned by the US Forest Service). The Jack and Buena Foundation now had operational control over a run-down camp facility, a long-running camp program, and a very thin enrollment.
What they also had, however, was the devotion of many camp alumni who were determined to keep the camp running. Poisson and Williams and their board of directors worked to raise money and rebuild the camp’s local reputation. Alumni continued to donate money to the camp, the board applied for and received some small grants, and the board of directors organized several successful fundraising concerts at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto.
In 2013, the YMCA signed over ownership of the camp to the Jack and Buena Foundation. Enrollment grew steadily, thanks to marketing and outreach done by the board. Eventually the board of directors felt they needed a full-time executive director to keep building the camp and its programs. In 2013, Poisson stepped down from the board and assumed that role.
Each summer, alumni continued to come for an annual reunion weekend at the camp, held the first weekend in August. Though the event never generated income, it brought together alumni and reinvigorated their dedication to the camp. The board of directors provided a detailed report to these alumni each year and heard their input, but mostly alumni came to visit their camp friends and the beautiful camp facilities.
The Donnell Fire
In the middle of a Saturday morning at the 2018 alumni weekend, Poisson heard from the US Forest Service that a nearby forest fire was moving closer to the camp. It had been a summer of dramatic fires across California. The Ferguson Fire, which began in early July, had closed Yosemite National Monument for a time. The Carr Fire, which started later in July, was raging in Shasta and Trinity Counties, where it burned more than 1,000 homes. And the Mendocino Complex Fire, which at this point was still two distinct fires, would blaze into the largest recorded fire complex in California history.
The fire burning near Camp Jack Hazard was small by comparison. Poisson was aware of the fire, and checked regularly with the Forest Service on its progress. The fire was not close enough to cancel the weekend, but Poisson alerted the alumni attendees ahead of their weekend visit that the fire was burning and the air quality was poor.
On Saturday morning, August 4, there were approximately 90 people in camp, including staff and alumni. Poisson’s sister-in-law, Amelia, was preparing food for an afternoon reception for the alumni. Other people were scattered throughout the camp, some tie-dying shirts in the arts-and-crafts building and some harnessed into the ropes course. Poisson was sitting on the sunny deck of the director’s cabin meeting with his board of directors, most of whom were in camp for the alumni event. He received a call from the US Forest Service indicating that they were recommending evacuations up to the nearby Dardanelle Resort. The nonmandatory evacuation recommendation had not yet reached the camp, but the board decided nevertheless to recommend the alumni evacuate.
Alumni returned to their cabins to pack their belongings, while the young camp staff organized rides to be sure everyone had a way off the mountain. The camp secretary and her children stood near the unpaved road out of camp to record who had left. As she was doing this, a family pulled back into camp and reported that the road to camp — Highway 108, the main route west to the Central Valley — had been closed. The remaining evacuees would have to leave by heading east, over the nearly 10,000 foot Sonora Pass.
The few remaining in camp gathered near the director’s cabin and discussed what to do next. Poisson’s family was there: Emiley and their two sons, Emiley’s mother, step-father, and her sister. Williams, co-founder of the Jack and Buena Foundation, was there with his long-time girlfriend, who had also been a camp director at one time and had served on the board of directors. Also present, among others, was one of the Poisson’s closest friends, Christina Fitts Flynn, with her husband, John, who she had briefly dated while a teenager at camp and then, 20 years later, had reconnected through Poisson.
Driving over the Sonora Pass would be a long detour, so the people remaining in camp decided to wait to see if the road heading west reopened. Above the tops of tall Sugar pines, thick smoke was making the light eerie. The group waited, and despite the collective fears for the camp, the conversation included laughter and warmth. Emiley’s sister returned to the camp kitchen to gather some food for the assembled group. Someone pulled out a guitar, as so often happened at camp gatherings. A board member presented Poisson with a plaque commemorating his five years as executive director of the Jack and Buena Foundation, which they had hoped to present at the scheduled gathering that night.
Soon, a county sheriff pulled in to camp and alerted Poisson that evacuations up to the Dardanelle Resort — one mile away — had become mandatory. The remaining alumni, who had already packed their belongings and had their vehicles parked near the gate leading out of camp, cleared out for the long drive east over the pass to eventually head back west toward their homes in Modesto, Napa, Davis, and the Bay Area. The last people in the camp that afternoon were the Poissons, Emiley’s mother Allison, her stepfather, Jacob, her sister, Christina Fitts Flynn and her husband John, and an alumnus named Lacey Gardener.
While Jacob and John were at one end of camp hitching the rented, portable generator to the Flynns’ truck, Allison asked that the others come together to say a prayer. Allison had been at the camp as a young person herself, and had watched her children and grandchildren attend. She gathered the small group in a circle near the camp’s exit and asked for protection for the camp. Then the group left in a caravan to drive slowly over the Sonora Pass.
Over the next ten days, alumni scattered over California and the US watched for news of the fire. The Donnell Fire earned little news coverage, as other fires around the state were causing dramatic, distressing damage. Social media became the main source of information about the fire. Poisson used Camp Jack Hazard’s Facebook page to provide updates and to set a tone that was both practical and hopeful.
On August 5, the community learned that the Dardanelle Resort — a mile away from Camp Jack Hazard — had burned to the ground. The resort had itself been standing since 1923, sharing more than 90 years of history with Camp Jack Hazard. Camp alumni reacted to the burning of Dardanelle with real sadness. Anyone who had worked at the camp over the years had used Dardanelle as a getaway during their brief hours off. The resort was walking distance from the camp, and the young camp staff would head down to Dardanelle to buy snacks at the store and sit around a firepit on the property enjoying brief freedom from their responsibilities caring for campers. During some summers, campers would make a 4th of July parade around the resort, the closest thing to a local community. The camp songbook even included a song and chant praising the Dardanelle Resort.
The burning of Dardanelle was also an indication that the fire was moving frighteningly close to camp. Alumni flooded Facebook with old photos, stories of favorite backpacking trips, and questions about how to help. Poisson’s posts continued to focus on the need to stay positive, to think first of firefighter safety, and to appreciate that the Donnell Fire had not turned deadly as the other fires around the state had. Poisson posted updates from the US Forest Service, reposted announcements from incident command, and urged alumni to avoid rumors and speculation.
On August 6, Poisson reported that one tent-cabin at Camp Jack Hazard had burned. He posted footage he had managed to get from a journalist friend of camp who had made it up to the site. The footage showed the Stanislaus Hotshots clearing brush in camp, protecting other buildings while fire burned close by. He posted requests for donations for the firefighters, and later reports showing an increasing containment and improved weather conditions. And when alumni expressed relief and gratitude that Camp Jack Hazard appeared to have been spared, Poisson reminded everyone to continue to keep others in mind: the Kennedy Meadows Pack Station was in the line of the fire.
As reports of containment emerged, it was clear that the camp alumni felt especially connected after the intensity of the fire watch. Old photos continued to appear on Facebook. Someone arranged an informal gathering for alumni in Oakland, and another was organized for Santa Cruz. Once he was able to get up to the site, Poisson posted photos of a scarred and scorched camp. Things look different, he said, but there was hope.
By Labor Day weekend, a small group of camp alumni was allowed by the Forest Service to go to the site to assess the damage and begin the cleanup process. They waded through thick ash to remove debris and clean out a kitchen that had been left in haste. The task ahead would require much more than they could accomplish in a weekend, but the photos of these volunteers covered in soot showed the commitment among this community to keep the camp alive.
In the weeks following the fire’s damage, Poisson kept busy meeting with the Forest Service, marking burned trees for removal, walking the site with hydrologists and geologists to evaluate the potential for mudslides, answering rental group questions, and clearing brush.
When January rolled around, Poisson was enrolling campers for the 2019 summer season. Camp Jack Hazard had made it through more than 90 continuous years of operation, surviving economic crisis, reorganization, and forest fire — like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Hard work in each case had rescued Camp Jack Hazard. Poisson showed how dedication, and the strategic use of new mediums like Facebook, can keep a camp in operation, so that future children can experience the magic that summers in the mountains can offer.
The Phoenix Award
Camp Jack Hazard is a co-educational residential summer camp providing outdoor adventure experiences, including rock-climbing and backpacking, at their camp facility in the Stanislaus National Forest. The camp, which is located at 6,200 feet in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, has been in continuous operation since 1924.
On Tuesday, January 29, at a Northern California regional meeting of the American Camp Association, Camp Jack Hazard was given the Phoenix Award, “in recognition of camps that have risen from adversity and continue to offer the camp experience to their campers and families.” Executive Director Jason Poisson accepted the award as recognition for his efforts in 2018 during and after the Donnell Fire that damaged the camp.
Photo courtesy of Camp Jack Hazard, Dardanelle, California.
Stephanie Brown is an educator and researcher who lives in Walnut Creek, California. She worked at Camp Jack Hazard for one summer in 1994, and subsequently served on the board of directors for the camp.