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Wildfire recovery: Creating a resilient home for outdoor education from ashes

September 05, 2018

By Brianna Daniels

Brianna Daniels helps to rebuild a California Boy Scout camp devastated by wildfire—and discovers her most memorable project

I’ve had the privilege of working on some high-impact, large-scale projects during my time at Stantec. None have made a larger impact on me than my work on the reconstruction of the new campus at Rancho Alegre, home of the California central coast’s Scout Camp and The Outdoor School.

The Outdoor School—the central coast’s premier outdoor education center since 1952—was used by more than 4,000 fifth- and sixth-graders annually from local schools who spent a day, an overnight, or a week there learning about nature. The school’s mission is to facilitate the development of community and environmental stewardship through a direct, hands-on experience with nature. The Outdoor School strives to teach participants the values of respect for nature, other people, and themselves.

The caretaker's home was among the 44 buildings destroyed at Rancho Alegre by the 2017 Whittier Fire.

As a resident of nearby Santa Maria, Rancho Alegre is near and dear to my heart. It’s where many of my neighbors, co-workers, and our children went on our first nine-mile hike, learned how to shoot a bow and arrow, and built core values that stick with us today. My sons are among those thousands of kids who spent time at the beloved Rancho Alegre.

The power of nature (and roaring flame)

On July 8, 2017, a wildfire broke out on property adjacent to Rancho Alegre. When the Whittier Fire devastated the Santa Barbara area, it overran Rancho Alegre, leaving complete devastation in its wake. Forty-four of Rancho Alegre’s 47 buildings were destroyed—those same buildings were 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.

When the flames subsided, only a few structures remained standing—Frank Lodge, Anacapa dorm, the swimming pool, and the building housing the pool’s showers and locker rooms survived. The rest were reduced to rubble and ash. All the animals housed at the Outdoor School’s Nature Center died in the fire, and the resident counselors at the camp lost almost everything they owned as they fled for their lives, leaving their belongings behind.

The power of Mother Nature is astounding.

A 2017 wildfire destroyed nearly every structure at Rancho Alegre, home of the California central coast’s Scout Camp and The Outdoor School.

Fires are a reality—we must design with them in mind

Based on our expertise in erosion control, we were hired to develop a stormwater management plan to mitigate the negative impacts of rain over the fire-damaged watershed. As part of the rebuild, we were awarded design services for facility infrastructure including water, sewers, and roadways in alignment with Rancho Alegre’s master plan to establish the groundwork for an innovative, functional, and sustainable new Outdoor Camp.

The fact is, fires in California are a reality. And they can wreak havoc on communities—the residents, businesses, institutions, landscapes, and infrastructure. We saw that firsthand with this project. We also saw that when it’s time to begin the recovery process, upfront planning expertise and facilitated decision-making can help save time, money, and frustration during a challenging, transitional time. We saw what nature can do, and we’re striving to design to mitigate that.

It was the first time my boys had visited the site since we had last camped there. … There were tears, and then there was the excitement of knowing that it will be rebuilt.

As we were planning for the initial phases of the project ramp up, we met with the fire department to discuss steps we could take to help protect the site from future fire damages, in addition to discussing future preventative measures for fire preparedness and protection. Among the topics we discussed and have begun implementing:

  • Improving the access on the main drive up to the camp, and repaving and widening the entrance access so emergency vehicles can get in and out in both directions safely.
  • Upgrading the entire campus’ water system. All reconstructed buildings will have fire sprinklers and will be built of out noncombustible materials.
  • Upgrading the water-distribution system to provide better fire flow in the event of a natural disaster.
  • Implementing diversion measures and building a plan to protect the land from any debris flow resulting from the burned watershed.
  • Collaboration with the Center for Employment Training, a center that trains community workforces, to help clear trees, overhanging limbs, and brush while providing volunteers valuable work experience.

Boy Scouts “dig in” at the groundbreaking ceremony at Rancho Alegre earlier this summer.

Breaking ground on a new beginning

Earlier this summer, the new campus at Rancho Alegre had its official groundbreaking for its reconstruction recovery project. I was there. And it’s a day I won’t forget.

It was the first time my boys had visited the site since we had last camped there. As we drove up the main entry, they were struck with the severity of the fire—it suddenly became real for them.

I could see them struggling with their emotions, to understand the force behind such a huge wildfire and witness firsthand the destruction. Then to think about what they had lost—the memories, the future. For a young child, that’s a lot to grasp in just a few minutes. There were tears, and then there was the excitement of knowing that it will be rebuilt, the trees and foliage will grow, the wildlife will return—and they can be a part of that.

The community came out in large numbers to support the project. I couldn’t have been happier to see all the familiar faces. Hearing the stories from Eagle Scouts and Scout executives simply made me feel proud that Stantec was able to help forge a path for the future camp. Many of us became engineers so that we could help others. This project embodies that concept, and it is my hope that I will look back on this project in 30 years and be proud of the impact our team was able to make.

Boy Scouts participate in a tug-of-war competition at Rancho Alegre in an event before the 2017 Whittier Fire. Author Brianna Daniels: "My sons are among those thousands of kids who spent time at the beloved Rancho Alegre."

Designing for the “worst-case scenario”

Having lived in Santa Barbara County my entire life, fire preparedness is something that I have always known. We keep the boxes packed, pictures handy, and a list of emergency supplies near the garage door. We have loaded up the cars during evacuations many times.

As we have witnessed the scale and magnitude of devastation grow in the past years, it really is up to each one of us to put planning for our safety at the forefront of any design project. We must listen to our first responders and create solutions. What was once thought of as the “worst-case scenario” is quickly becoming a reality for our communities, and we must be prepared.

  • Brianna Daniels

    Brianna continually puts her clients’ needs first–providing excellent service through communication, integrity, and honesty.

    Contact Brianna
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