Wednesday, July 17, 2013 | 2 a.m.
For nine days, staff at the Torino Ranch in Lovell Canyon watched as fires raged around them and threatened an oasis they’d been working to build for the past 20 years.
Located on the southern side of Mount Charleston on a remote 160 acres accessible only by a 12-mile winding road, the ranch has served as a summer camp and idyllic retreat for sick and disabled children since 1999.
For the past week, the camp’s usual contingent of frolicking kids has been replaced by 200 firefighters who have made the ranch home and battled the fire as it came within a mile of the property.
The ranch’s well-stocked pantry and recently installed commercial kitchen were quickly put to use once the firefighters set up camp, while two lakes on the property served as valuable sources of water to be siphoned off and dumped on the fires by helicopter. Firefighters pitched tents in clusters, opting not to take advantage of the cabin bunk beds.
The two dozen structures at the core of the ranch and the nearby wilderness were unharmed, but devastation from the fire is clearly visible on the surrounding hills where lush verdant forests have been erased, leaving only bare earth.
“The heartache to see what’s occurring, it’s somewhere between shock, hurt and disbelief … We were right at the fulcrum of where this fire was for days,” said Brett Torino, ranch founder and local developer. “When you look out around the ranch and you see all these hills full of oak, manzanita and sage, those trees are gone. Everything that just burned in this fire is gone for three generations at least.”
Kari Tillman, executive director for the Torino Foundation, was one of several staff members who were at the ranch helping support firefighters. As the fire lapped at the ranch’s northwestern boundary, she said it looked like a volcano erupting, describing the scene as awe-inspiring and violent, yet at the same time strangely beautiful.
“I feel extremely fortunate to be standing here today. I still have to pinch myself,” Tillman said. “It’s been crazy here the last 10 days … I’m ready to see some happy campers.”
Campers will begin returning to the ranch Tuesday. Their entire camp experience — canoeing, swimming in the lake, watching butterflies and meeting friends — is paid for by the Torino Foundation.
Each camp session, which last three to five days, caters to different groups of children, some with cancer or a critical illness, others with autism and some who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend a camp.
“What the kids come here for is their first opportunity to see butterflies and lizards and snakes; to hear the wind and smell the trees,” Torino said.
Three camp sessions were canceled because of the fire, although one was relocated to a different property and another is in the process of being rescheduled for later this summer, Tillman said.
Much of the scenic campgrounds, including a stream, an amphitheater and a meditation garden, were built after the ranch was devastated by a 2002 wildfire that burned 4,300 acres in Lovell Canyon.
A section of scorched trees separated by a creek from the ranch’s bunking cabins show how close the fire got then, but like the recent blaze, firefighters were able to hold it back.
The damage came a day after the fire receded — heavy rains swept across the area, sending an avalanche of water, rocks and debris through the campgrounds, destroying the main lodge and several other buildings.
Torino and Tillman fear a repeat and are anxiously checking the weather reports for signs of heavy rain while they wait for an official threat assessment from forest officials.
After being built out over the course of 20 years, Torino said the ranch was in a fragile position and any serious damage would be a serious blow to operations.
But he’s more worried the cumulative effect of forest fires in the area, which have left only a few thousand acres of unscarred land on the back bowl of Mount Charleston. If another major fire were to strike, Torino fears what remains of an important natural and recreational asset to Las Vegas could be lost.
“The structures are secondary to the environment,” he said. When it’s burned, what do we do? I can’t tell you. I don’t even know how to answer that.”