Forward Thinking

Raging Fire Rousts Jewish Western Sleepaway Camp

By Naomi Zeveloff

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The raging forest fire outside of Colorado Springs has displaced tens of thousands of people, including 143 children from the JCC Ranch Camp in Elbert, Colorado, where I used to spend my summers as a kid.

A Jewish sleepaway camp with the feel of a Western dude ranch, the JCC Ranch Camp taught me to ride horses and to sing about horseback riding in Hebrew.

I’ll never forget the havdalah services under the stars, nor the legend of Stumpy, the murderous one-legged outlaw whose spirit was said to haunt the camp. Whisper his name during a camping trip and it would inevitably start raining.

Any rainstorm would be a welcome relief in Colorado these days. The Black Forest fire has destroyed hundreds of homes and killed two people. At the JCC Ranch Camp, summer got off to a typical start on Sunday, but on Wednesday, as the fire continued to burn with only minimal containment, camp officials decided to evacuate.

“We were in constant communication with Elbert County Emergency Management Offices,” said Megan O’Connor, spokesperson at the Robert E. Loup JCC in Denver, which runs the camp. “We knew that it would take time to evacuate, and would rather have time to do that before it becomes a last minute emergency.”

The campers and staff were loaded onto buses provided by the Elbert County school district and taken to the Denver JCC. The camp also evacuated 37 horses, five chickens, three cats and two goats; they were placed out of harm’s way in a facility in Elbert. Eight dogs were brought to Denver.

The kids spent Wednesday night at the JCC. When the outdoor pool was closed because of an air quality warning from the Denver Health Department, the kids set up a gaga pit indoors to entertain themselves. The next day, parents of children from Denver were allowed to pick up their kids. Other children from out of state were taken in by Denver families for the duration of the two-week session.

The camp is now running a day program for the kids out of the Denver Jewish Day School. O’Connor says that the Ranch Camp plans to resume for second session, depending on what happens with the fire.

For now, she says, “We’re doing our best to keep the programs running in Denver so that the kids are able to stay together, which is very important for them. They need to be with people who can help keep the Ranch Camp spirit alive.”


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