Tag Archives: California Wildfires

The Baby Saints: The Story of a Heroic Rescue at Enchanted Hills Camp

This past week, EHC Site Managers Don and Janet Lay returned to their home at Enchanted Hills to resume their role of onsite staff. Enchanted Hills has a long road to rebuilding, but in celebration of this little victory, we bring you one of our favorite stories from the fire, as a tribute.

It was nearing midnight on Sunday, October 8. Smoke rolled over the mountain towards Enchanted Hills Camp. Staff stumbled out of their homes and glanced eastward and to find the entire range of hills ablaze in the distance from the nearing Nuns fire. Seeing the rising torrent of flames and high winds, the group decided on the spot to evacuate.

There were 14 people, three dogs and years of history and personal belongings to bring with them. The group packed everything and everyone into the cars they got from allcarleasing ( Click here to find out more about it), except for two little creatures who would not fit. The goats.

Janet had to think on her feet. She grabbed the hose and left it trickling into the bathtub nearby, thinking that at the very least, the goats would have water until they could escape. They patted the goats on the head, and opened the door to the stables, offering the animals their freedom if they wanted it. They said goodbye to Saint Nicholas and Saint Christopher.

Loved by campers, guide dogs and horses alike, “The Baby Saints” were a welcome addition to camp when they joined the EHC family in April 2017. Camp site staff Janet and Donny Lay rescued the two pristinely white baby goats, dubbed Saint Christopher and Saint Nicholas, from the Goat Rescue of Sonoma County. The companion goats were the latest in a series of goat herds dating back nearly ten years, who contributed to our fire abatement efforts by keep the grassy fuel load down to keep camp safe and intact. They soon became much more, and our Enchanted Hills Facebook fans and hundreds of campers came to know them as unofficial mascots.

The Baby Saints in a bright green field after arriving at EHC.
The Baby Saints in a bright green field after arriving at EHC.
Janet and Saint Christopher on the goats’ first day at EHC.
Janet and Saint Christopher on the goats’ first day at EHC.

The four-month-old goats quickly found a routine and became highly socialized, hanging with the horses from the Thacher School in the summer months and learning how to graze. They’d call out to campers walking up the road, begging for some love and attention, or frolic with camp counselor Analisa’s guide dog Walten in the stable while she worked in the pasture with the horses. They came to love people so much that they sometimes needed to be shooed away from trying to enter the dining hall.

When the horses left at the end of the summer, the goats were forlorn — but took to their jobs of grazing through the property and clearing away dense brambles and thickets.

***

After evacuating, site staff hoped to return to gather more of their personal belongings after evacuation, but it was too late. Throughout the week, they watched from temporary lodgings throughout the Bay Area as satellite imagery showed a red patchwork moving closer and closer to camp, so that soon it was right on top of the property. Janet and the team panicked, worried about the loss of their beloved home, but also for the gnawing sensation that there were two living, loving creatures still stuck up on the mountain.

On Thursday morning the fires had seemingly slackened and cooled and Janet woke up early, with new resolve. Frustrated by the road closures that blocked any entry for miles around our camp, she jumped online to see if anyone in the Napa area could get into EHC and help the goats. She discovered the Napa Community Animal Response Team (Napa CART) on Facebook and was relieved to discover that they were busy rescuing animals in the Napa area. She immediately started an email conversation that led to a few phone calls. She sent them a map of the property that indicated where the goats were likely to be found.

An hour later, Janet’s phone rang. A man on the other end said, “I’m going up to get your goats.”

Map of Enchanted Hills Camp with the stable circled in red.
Map of Enchanted Hills Camp with the stable circled in red.

Five hours later, NAPA Cart uploaded a post to Facebook:

“We have been very fortunate to help evacuate so many wonderful animals over the past few days and evacuations are continuing. Just now Saint Nicholas and Saint Christopher, these adorable 9 month old twin goats, were rescued from Mount Veeder and are now on their way to safe shelter.”

The Baby Saints were safe.

***

But where had they been? How had they managed to stay alive as flames tore through camp and across Mount Veeder, destroying dozens of EHC structures and leveling countless houses in the surrounding area?

With a little sleuthing, the pieces started coming together. The man on the phone was Sergeant Jeremy, a local Napa Animal Control worker and volunteer with the Napa CART organization.

He had set out to EHC with Janet’s map in hand, unsure if the goats would be there when he arrived. But when Sergeant Jeremy got to camp, the Baby Saints were right where Janet thought they’d be: huddled together in the bathtub near the stable, where Janet had left them a vital water source. They came running when called, relieved to find a human companion after days of fending for themselves.

The goats huddled together in the bathtub.
The goats huddled together in the bathtub.

When our photographers finally returned to camp, though, we discovered that the goats hadn’t stayed put the whole time — in fact they had had their run of Enchanted Hills in the absence of their caretakers. The stone dining hall had always been the neighborhood’s shelter-in-place structure, and the new fire-resistant roof kept it safe. The hardy pair somehow managed to force their way into the structure to take refuge, roving into the kitchen and nurse’s office, before finding their way back to their water source, where Sergeant Jeremy found them. Evidence below:

The telltale evidence of how the goats survived: goat droppings in our dining hall.
The telltale evidence of how the goats survived: goat droppings in our dining hall.

Despite having been through a lot, the goats were still frisky, Sergeant Jeremy said, recounting how he had to wrestle the little saints into a dog catcher truck, and after a brief tussle, carted them safely away from the property. No rescue mission would be complete without a tussle.

The Baby Saints spent the last few weeks on a leisurely staycation at a farm in Napa ever since, and with Janet and Donny back at camp as the site caretakers, the Baby Saints are now back home at EHC.

***

Goats may seem like odd pets to keep, but our appreciation for these little creatures goes much deeper than companionship. Between 2008 and 2013 we brought hundreds of goats to Enchanted Hills as part of an overarching fire abatement plan, to munch and maintain the underbrush and flammable wilderness that surrounds us on all sides. It is thanks to this planning that so many of the central structures in camp are still standing — including the fire-safe dining hall — where the crafty little survivors took refuge during the worst of the fire.

In some ways, we owe these humble (and insatiable) creatures a big thank you for the things that survived the fire. May they graze peacefully and heartily for years to come. A giant thank you to Napa CART, Sergeant Jeremy and the handful of EHC friends and staff who helped to complete a successful goat rescue mission.

We’re immensely grateful for the safety of our EHC site staff and the furry creatures they cohabitate with. But in order to get them back in business, there’s work to be done. Please help us Rebuild EHC after the devastating fires that led to the destruction of 29 of our structures, including the 10 cabins that have housed hundreds of summer campers and counselors every year since 1950.

Now, more than ever, Enchanted Hills needs your support and donations.

What We Will Need to Rebuild EHC

Dear LightHouse Community,

I’ve just returned from my first permitted visit to our Enchanted Hills Camp, evacuated three weeks ago with only an hour’s notice. Over the past weeks I’ve known, intellectually, many of the facts and losses caused by the fire, but visiting camp in person deepened my understanding of the damage to this very special place and why it’s essential that we rebuild it better and stronger than ever.

As I drove up to camp with camp director Tony Fletcher, most of the way up Mt. Veeder Road looked strangely untouched and beautiful. But about two miles from camp, we began to see the burned-down shells of nearly half of our neighbors’ houses, barns and outbuildings. The air turned pungent with sweet but ominous smoke and we were surprised to see hot spots still smoldering three weeks after the fires.

Such was the magnitude of the great fire, at $3.3 billion in damages it is likely the worst in California history. Talking with locals who monitored the course of the fires, it appears that Enchanted Hills was located almost in the exact location where the huge Nuns fire and Partrick fires converged. Today, the whole face of 2,600-foot Mt. Veeder appears blackened by the unprecedented inferno.

We turned into the driveway, past the main camp sign smashed by a fire truck on entry, then made our way past an improvised barricade designed to keep others out. Immediately, I heard the buzz of a portable generator powering our water system pumps; we’ve already stored away about 10,000 gallons of water fire departments used in fighting the fires on our property. The generator reminded us that there is no electricity at all at camp, and with the massive burnout of our power system’s poles and wires it’s likely it will be months until we get power everywhere we need it. We will appreciate a sizable electrical contracting company to help with our massive electric power rebuild. The fire has been very big so some of the trucks needed to help in order to carry water for the fire. As the electricity connection was out because of the big fire, good thing that semi trucks has well-charged lighting for semi trucks.

Many meadows around camp are untouched by fire, thanks to a protective heritage first undertaken starting in 2008. The open spaces, unchoked by underbrush, clearly helped protect almost all of upper camp’s buildings. A walk inside the Hogan, Lakeside cabins, or the Kiva show the spaces unburned by fire, though likely needing smoke remediation, deep cleaning and repainting. Same for the gathering house and dining hall. We’ll need painters, best carpet cleaning service and commercial dry cleaners to help with our walls, bedding and permeable surfaces.

Donate to #RebuildEHC

Walking down to the pool, camp begins to feel more like a wasteland. The decking has burned so completely as to reveal a three-foot deep pit underneath. The bathhouse has nothing left, as well as all storage buildings and the beautiful shade structure build by the Davis Kiwanis Club. With all of the delicate bushes and trees burned around the pool, the place is a stark counterpoint to the boisterous fun I remember from thousands of campers and their families.

But one detail gave me heart: The pool’s level was down three feet from normal. Why? We heard that after the fire department had drained our 20,000 gallon tanks in upper camp, they turned to the abundant pool water to help save our camp structures. Maybe that is where Los Angeles Engine #98 got the water they used to save parts of the Redwood Grove theater? We hope to find out more about these details soon. We need to repair and rejuvenate all the lost recreational spaces at camp, including the Redwood Grove Theater.

In addition to the surviving theater benches, the beautiful redwood trees still stand tall, only a few with darkened trunks. The needles far above were still green and the graceful giants will likely all survive.

We hiked down to Rose Resnick’s favorite part of camp, the lower chapel, with its creek still running even now in late October. I could feel the spirits of 90 years of blind campers down there, the girls and boys savoring the smells of quintessential California woodland. At the blackened Lower Chapel, I found the creek, but its surroundings seemed very different. All the California bay trees and Douglas firs had burned away, revealing for the first time the full Creekside formerly hidden in a green thicket of plants.

What remained was a clear, parklike stand of redwoods with an occasional oak. I fear for the titanic erosion that likely will happen this winter. We need groups, companies or organized associations who will be willing to spread seed, plant seedlings and participate in a multi-year effort to reforest EHC with the right native species and ensure for erosion control.

Walking around the Lower Chapel is now treacherous. Five-foot holes edge what’s left of the walkway, places in which hundred-foot trees used to stand.  The creek bridge and all railings are gone, as is just about all of the thousands of feet of guide rope and supports first installed in the 1950s. Safe and accessible walkways, including natural cane-detectible edging, will be a multi-year project, but one that will open up this jewel for future generations of all abilities.

As we stood in lower camp and the sun peeked out of the smoky clouds, a few local birds began to sing. There have been some squirrel sightings already, and, ironically, an unusual number of rattlesnakes have been on the move, displaced from their homes. The disturbed and newly-sunny hillsides may also be ideal for poison oak in the early years after the fire. We’ll need naturalists, botanists and those willing to get their hands dirty by removing unwanted plants and weeds as we beautify, landscape and care for camp’s new ground cover because they will be building a new home, while planing and Choosing the right house plan for you.

Donate to #RebuildEHC

I walked up the road to see what was left of the 2,000 square-foot 1927 camp cafeteria and roller rink. I found the little ramp leading up from the road to the front door, but the building had burned so furiously that only a thin ash pile remained. Tony Fletcher poked around and found the antique glass front doorknob. As I held it in my hands, the glass broke, the last remnant of nearly 90 years of blind activities in the building.

And so it went throughout the afternoon, and the more time I spent at camp the more the list of needs grew ever longer. Where were those massive picnic tables built by our neighbors? Couldn’t even find a trace of ash where they had once stood. What about the recreation field sports shed, crammed with low ropes, beep baseballs and every other kind of sports equipment? Only the concrete slab remains. What about the dozens of outdoor speakers and miles of wire strung by Mike May so that the entire camp could enjoy camp wide radio broadcasts?

For most of camp, the system is dust. All of those clever Wi-Fi access points we set up over the last year or two also don’t exist. It’s going to take wave after wave of volunteers and craftspeople to build things back even better.

Sometimes it’s the enormity of the little things that are gone that got to me. Beds, mattresses and bedding for 120 kids vanished without a trace. Dozens of dressers, chairs, desks and well-used campfire seating. Beloved cabin and trail signs and nature boxes evaporated. These are the things that blind people touched and benefited from every day. We’ll now start to build beautiful warm things for generations of campers to come.

And build it we will. I was met on property by Napa County Supervisor Ryan Gregory. As we walked through treacherous lower camp I asked him how property owners like us can possibly pay for all the debris removal or the felling of dangerous weakened trees. He said there are county programs that may be slow in operation, but they will come.

Supervisor Gregory also walked with us to the remains of our staff house, once the home of five valued camp employees. He wants to help EHC and our neighbors in any way possible. To that end, he’s paying out of his own pocket for a neighborhood informational meeting this Thursday at 5:00 p.m., held in our intact dining hall. We expect more than 100 neighbors to meet each other for the first time since the fire and band together as we build back a community stronger than ever.

If all goes as forecast the Thursday meeting will adjourn and three days of soaking rains will begin, permanently ending the fire season and beginning a new season of cleanup and reconstruction.

While I am writing this, I’ve just gotten the good news that our contractors have been able to restore some limited electrical power to our water pump house and some parts of upper camp. If our crews can do the impossible, Supervisor Gregory will be able to host our neighbors tomorrow in a dining hall brightened for the first time in nearly a month. Keep your fingers crossed for this humble victory.

And so the reconstruction begins. Of Enchanted Hills staff, all were displaced by the fires and four of them lost their homes and jobs. I am glad to learn that four of the five have already found work and a place to stay. The fifth is about to begin some long-planned international travel and will be in touch with us upon his return next year.

Our Spring House, home to our amazing site managers Donny and janet Lay, is being cleaned so they will resume full-time living on property just days from now. We’ll haul off more than a dozen refrigerators, permanently fouled by a month-long power outage.

We’ve begun accumulating tens of thousands of gallons of treated water from our spring, essential to cleanup and the health of our contractors and staff. And most importantly, we’ve begun to hear from many of you directly.

We’ve established a link for tax-deductible donations earmarked exclusively for camp reconstruction. Donate to help rebuild EHC in the aftermath of devastating fire damage.

We’ve also built a convenient way for people moved by our situation to give immediately by texting. Simply text ‘RebuildEHC’ to  501-55 and specify your donation amount when prompted.

Next Summer at EHC

Though we’ve suffered the greatest loss in our history, I want you to know we’re already thinking about ways we might build back camp in time to host limited groups this summer. If we can muster the contractors, materials and volunteers groups, our plucky camp staff and community will make a mighty effort to hold some special sessions as early as summer 2018. It won’t be anything like last year, but we intend to pioneer our own future in ways that will build a stronger camp and a stronger community for it.

In appreciation,

Bryan Bashin, CEO

LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired