The Longest Day

Tully Rohrer

May 23rd, 2007

First off, let me apologize for my long hiatus. As many of you know, our little island paradise was in a lot of peril recently. At about noon on Thursday, May 10th, two Edison Electric employees were doing some welding when a spark caught a small patch of grass on fire. By the time the fire was 100% contained more than a week later, over 4700 acres burned, with much of that acreage located in the Toyon Bay canyon where our school is located. For full appreciation of how close this fire came to destroying our campus, look at the map here. For scale, remember that the whole town of Avalon is a single square mile.

This sequence of pictures was taken over the course of four hours on the day the fire broke out. Unfortunately, I’m sure many people know what it’s like to witness a wildfire, but this experience was my first and probably one of the most incredibly intense experiences I’ve ever gone through. Over the course of the next week, I will post many images of this devastating fire, starting with these five, and I will contribute a full description of the experience.

The first image here shows the primary plumes of smoke about an hour after the fire broke out. As you can see, the fire began basically right at the top of the mountain that our canyon descends from. The little dot to the right of the smoke is a helicopter trying to guide the firefighters. The orange color on the grass in the bottom left is due to the fact that sun was already blocked out by smoke.

About 30 minutes after the fire broke out, the winds had picked up and the fire was spreading faster than one could run. The second image shows the sky blackened with smoke, the flames obscured behind the thick, ashy cloud. It was about this time that the planes stopped dropping fire retardant in our canyon because the wind was pushing the fire right into the town of Avalon. Within 10 minutes of this picture, the Los Angeles County Fire Marshall called for a mandatory evacuation of Toyon Bay because they were no longer going to focus on saving our comparatively small community of 75 permanent residents with the homes of over 4000 at risk in Avalon.

As a result of the fact that the fire was moving so quickly, no one - no staff nor students - were able to take any personal belongings. Our focus became the evacuation of all staff and all 250 students on campus. The third image shows our staff organizing the evacuation that required three ferry boats. At this point, it was clear the flames were going to spread down onto campus, and it is easy to see how far down into the canyon they had moved in just an hour. We were moved about 3 miles down the coast to Fox Landing, another Catalina Island Marine Institute facility.

The fourth image shows the last clear image of Toyon Bay I was able to take as the ferry took us away from home. At this point, smoke was in the process of enveloping our eastern hillside. It was here that all of us that call Toyon Bay home began to feel our stomachs in our throats, with only the 250 kids we were assisting keeping us from exhausted pessimism. You can see the last of the students loading the boat from the pier.

The last image shows complete helplessness. There was nothing we could do at this point but sit and watch from three miles away as smoke completely obscured Toyon Bay from view, with everything we own, for all we knew, about to be consumed in fire. I can’t really describe the emotion we felt watching this scene - Toyon Bay is our home, our job, our paradise, and contained everything that identified us - passports, wallets, computers, clothing, gear… it all was left behind.

Within 3 hours of this last image, the wind had shifted (the same wind shift which was responsible for saving Avalon), the flames had jumped over the Red Mountain ridge, and the fire was moving directly towards Fox Landing as well. We were again ordered to evacuate, this time to Long Beach. The crux of this issue, however, was that all of Avalon had to be evacuated first. Power and phone lines had been lost to every part of the island west of Avalon and we had to wait for five hours before the large ferry came to evacuate Fox Landing at midnight, with over 475 students and staff. By 2AM we were in Long Beach, left to assume that all was lost and not knowing whether we would have a home or a job to return to.

The next image I will post is probably the most dramatic - the final view we had of our island home - just darkness and flames.

Song of the Day: Sufjan Stevens - We Won’t Need Legs to Stand
We had a Christian school at Toyon at the time, and they promised to pray for us (and the things they were forced to leave behind as well). All I could hear was Sufjan Stevens and his portrayal of a vengeful God. The song that really kept playing in my head was Seven Swans, but that song will accompany the next image.

grateful for the prayers and the firefighters and the providence that largely spared you all…and the boats that brought everyone to relative safety…fill a journal with your thoughts–most people have no clue as to what this must have felt like.

An Anonymous Viewer — May 23rd, 2007

Such powerful shots, t. and words. I’m glad for your safety but so sad and sorry for your journey, I hope you all got home safely and look forward to your next post…

Becky — May 23rd, 2007

The hike up the mountain was devastating. It was hard to see the ruins of the fire, considering how much the staff loves your home. I still have a couple of those spit-sucking leaves, the leaf that provides an inscence, and bison hair from the cacti. I took alot, sorry Tully. Oh, and my mom said I can go to summer camp [:

YASMINE — May 25th, 2007

Oh, and you posted this on the Wednesday we were there? Wouldn’t you rather do stuff with us? I’m heartbroken, Tully. [;

YASMINE — May 25th, 2007

hay Tully! i had a blast at camp it was the best ever! me ann & yasmine are sad that we left! you were the coolest leader ever! so thanks for making camp the best time of our life’s =]

Diana — May 25th, 2007

I took the time to search for you on google but i just gave diana the link. :]

YASMINE — May 25th, 2007

wow, didn’t realize you were on Catalina. I used to go camping there was I was kid… glad you made it through the fire ok.

Peter FMay 29th, 2007

FYI - There was never a Christian School at ”Toyon Bay.” If you’re referring to the Catalina Island School, which preceeded CIMI, I am an alumnus and trust me, we were anything but christians!

Arden Cody — June 5th, 2007

Great pictures man. I’m on the edge of my seat for the rest of the images, and the rest of the story.

JustinDecember 16th, 2007

Arden: You’ve misunderstood me. Every week at CIMI we have a dozen or so different schools attend our program… one of the schools visiting us during the fire was a Christian school (Trinity Lutheran). I’m fully aware of Toyon’s past, from the schools to the spy training to the dude ranch. Sorry for the misunderstanding!

TullyDecember 16th, 2007

The CIMI catalina program is so far the best experience of my life.All of the counslers seemed so chill even though this devestating moment happened just a week before.So Tully,even though you were not my counceler….THANK YOU!

p.s.~is that Peter Mcbride

An Anonymous Viewer — January 27th, 2008

i had an awesome time at CIMI, u rock tully

brian — November 20th, 2008

A friend passed on this site to me with a question, ”hey didn’t you go to school there?”

Yes. Yes I did.

I am Chris Vosburg, Catalina Island School (For Boys, then, dammit) alumnus 1972 and the nephew of Keith Vosburg, who built the school (upon securing a 99 year lease from Wrigley, which will expire soon, hee hee).

Anything you want to know about the school, ask, and I may be able to answer.

In return, I would very much like to see more of the photos you took and know more of your experience at the whatever-it-is-now-called that CISB became after the school folded back in the seventies.

It’s been forty years since I was there, but I am still– as you must be– in love with the rock.

Chris Vosburg — July 11th, 2009

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