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Manager of church-run Camp Colby assesses fire losses, and saves

September 3, 2009 |  4:26 pm

The last time J. Mark McConnell saw Camp Colby was Saturday afternoon, when flames were racing down from nearby Strawberry Peak and fast approaching the camp where he has lived with his family for the last 24 years.

Sheriff’s officials told McConnell, the site manager, and two other staff members at the United Methodist Church-run camp that they had one hour to get out. His wife and children had gone ahead. He hurriedly grabbed his cat and two dogs and left, but the cat slipped away from him and disappeared into the smoke.

On Thursday, his hopes sank as he traveled the precarious roadways up toward the camp in the depths of the Angeles National Forest, dodging low-hanging power lines and avoiding rocks that had tumbled down the steep terrain in the fire. 

Where a lush canopy of green oak trees had once formed a tunnel above the roadway, only skeletons of trees stood, looking like charred black matchsticks. He stared in disbelief at piles of ash that marked where his neighbors’ homes once stood.

“They’re burned out over there, and over there as well,” he said, pointing at the debris. “My friend’s place was over there; it’s gone.”

Then as he neared the camp, in the distance, he spotted three intact cabins. “They were the most friggin’ exposed and they’re standing!” McConnell said, the excitement apparent in his voice. “I’m very encouraged from what I’m seeing.”

At the entrance to the camp, pieces of the sign that once read “Colby Camp” were strewn across the ground, some of the letters charred and others missing.

But the 373-acre camp, where McConnell’s three children were born and reared, seemed to remain the only patch of greenery in the landscape of devastation. Many of the 25 wooden cabins tucked in amid huge mature oaks and cottonwoods appeared to have survived the flames.

Gone were three mobile homes — where the camp staff had lived — one cabin containing 12 beds, one meeting cabin and one restroom.

But his family’s home stood nearly untouched, and a $30,000 wood chipper he had just purchased also had been spared.

“They must have been up here, they must’ve been up here!” McConnell excitedly said of firefighters as he dashed in and out of the buildings, looking for his cat and assessing the damage.

He ran around stamping out smoldering patches with his boots, and shoveling dirt onto them. McConnell said he will be “walking with a spring in his step,” though his cat is still missing.

—Ann M. Simmons at Camp Colby