MARGATE — It took Carly Sless, a 19-year-old sophomore at University of Colorado in Boulder, a week or two to absorb the magnitude of what she experienced Aug. 7 at Camp Ramah, where she is a counselor.
Just hours after a routine fire drill, a fire broke out in the laundry area of the main lodge at the Conservative Jewish summer camp in Rocky Mountain National Park, about 40 minutes from the nearest fire department.
“My supervisor, who lives on the second floor, smelled smoke, and his smoke detector went off shortly after 2 a.m.,” Sless said in the kitchen of her Margate home, where she lives with her younger sister and mother. “Really, who does laundry in the middle of the night?”
According to camp director Rabbi Eliav Bock, the supervisor opened his door, saw smoke and jumped out a window in his underwear onto a porch roof. He immediately alerted camp staff using a walkie-talkie and Bock called 911. The supervisor sustained minor scrapes and burns, and was treated at the scene.
Dani Wallace, communications director of Camp Ramah of the Rockies, said the fire started when a wire beneath the machine short circuited.
Bock said nine supervisors went to the main building and tried to put out the fire with 14 fire extinguishers and a hose, but within a few minutes, the roof of the two-story building was engulfed and he yelled for everyone to get out of there, he said.
“We turned off the propane and electricity to the building,” Bock said.
“We weren’t planning to evacuate because the other buildings were a safe distance away, and it had rained the day before, but we woke up the 130 campers and took precautions just in case we did have to evacuate,” Sless said.
Bock said being in such a remote location arouses the fear of forest fires.
“It could have ignited the trees, which could have a cascading effect,” he said. “We got all of our vehicles ready to roll, but there’s just a one-lane road leading to our camp and we didn’t want to block access for the firetrucks.”
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By the time the firefighters arrived about 50 minutes later, the entire building had burned and collapsed into the basement, and two of the 12 vehicles were destroyed.
“The building was beyond saving. The trees were charred, but thankfully, none exploded,” he said. “Thank God the fire department was able to keep the flames from spreading.”
The fire was under control within 30 minutes, but firefighters stayed on the scene for another 10 hours dousing hot spots.
“They poured over 300,000 gallons of water,” he said.
“Our biggest concern was the horse barn, but we got all the horses out safely,” Sless said.
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“I didn’t absorb what happened until a week later,” Sless said. “I was in charge of 30 kids, and for some of them it was their first time at the camp and didn’t understand the sentimental value and memories contained in that building.”
She attended the camp in summers for three years, but for the last two years, she worked there as a counselor.
Sless said she was “so stressed out” during the fire but was able to remain calm for the others.
“Some of the older kids were more upset than the younger kids,” she said.
It was fortunate the fire occurred the week before the end of the season. A core crew of counselors, bunk staff and the horse crew remained to help clean up, and the campers were moved to the nearby JCC Ranch Camp to finish the remainder of their stay, Wallace said.
“It took me a while to not fear fire, and it made me realize something can happen when you least expect it, so you have to value every moment,” Sless said.
“Carly and the staff stepped up to wake the kids and keep them safe. They trained for emergency situations, and they operated at an incredibly high level,” Bock said. “For two hours they sat there in the cold singing songs.”
Sless said she is looking forward to returning to her home away from home next summer.
“The camp connects kids to nature and teaches them Jewish values,” she said.
Bock said the camp intends to reopen in summer with a temporary office and kitchen, but the lodge will be rebuilt, hopefully in time for the 2019 season.
Because of its remoteness in the Rocky Mountains, there is a short building season, the rabbi said.
“Insurance proceeds and fundraising will allow us to rebuild. We are at 40 percent of our goal, and we are planning a groundbreaking in April.”