Hi-Hill Outdoor Education Center somehow remains standing, despite its location well within the burn area of the largest wildfire in the recorded history of the Angeles National Forest, officials with the U.S. Forest Service said Thursday based upon eyewitness accounts from a structure protection crew that remains at Hi-Hill today.
“In a briefing this morning, one of our guys on the ground said the fire burned right up to the school but did not touch the school,” said Kristy Bryner, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman.
The massive Station Fire is now about double the size of any previous fire in the Angeles National Forest, Bryner said. The fire yesterday was thought to have burned through the Long Beach Unified School District's outdoor science camp, according to maps that combine satellite and fire detection technology, though the school district could not confirm damages. Ultimately, however, brush clearance work performed by the school district under the Forest Service's guidance in recent months saved the school this week, Bryner said.
“The preventive work done in conjunction with the Forest Service absolutely paid off,” Bryner said. “It not only protected the facility, but it made the firefighters’ job on the ground a lot easier.”
Because Hi-Hill was completely surrounded by thousands of acres of burned forest, the 13-acre site was a relative speck on Wednesday’s satellite fire map – apparently too small to be detected as unburned, that is until ground crews confirmed it with their own eyes. Because of continued fire danger, a structure protection crew remains on the ground at Hi-Hill, but the school is now likely to survive intact.
“I think the worst is over, but we wouldn’t continue to have a crew up there if there were no danger at all,” Bryner said. The Station Fire, which threatened Hi-Hill on Friday and Saturday, had passed through the general area by Sunday without causing major damage to the camp.
Even as late as Monday, a satellite photo with a red overlay depicting the burn area showed that Hi-Hill escaped fire damage. But revised maps later showed Hi-Hill well within the burn area. No students were attending the camp when the Station Fire broke out. A maintenance worker for the Long Beach Unified School District was evacuated from the site on Friday as a precaution, and no other LBUSD employees remained at the site.
While the camp is on federal land, LBUSD has a special permit to operate a natural science education camp there. The school district, however, shut down the camp last year – at first due to fire danger, and then due to budget cuts.
The school district owns the more than 40 structures at the site, including student dorms, or cabins, a dining hall, storage buildings, offices, staff residences and other buildings. The buildings are wood-framed structures, some of them built 60 years ago.
More than 300,000 students had attended the camp since it opened as one of California’s first outdoor science schools in 1948. Fifth graders in the school district would spend a week at the camp learning firsthand about astronomy, geology, ecology, biology, botany, entomology, ornithology, meteorology and other sciences. For many students, the one-week camp was their first close-up experience with nature.
Last year’s closure of the camp saved the school district nearly $1 million annually. The closure was part of more than $100 million in cuts that the school district has made in the past five years due to the state’s ongoing budget crisis.
For updates on the forest fire, visit www.inciweb.org and click on the “Station” Wildfire. Updates also are available 24 hours a day at 626-821-6700 and 626-574-1613.