Nine Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies were honored for their life-saving responses during last year's Whittier fire at the Recognition Awards Program and Luncheon held April 11 at Earl’s Place at the Earl Warren Showgrounds.
Seven of the deputies were presented the Sheriff’s Medal of Courage, and two received a Meritorious Service Award, all in connection to the fire that eventually burned 18,430 acres and destroyed 16 homes.
They were among 20 deputies and three Sheriff’s Office units honored at the luncheon for their exemplary service in 2017.
The Whittier fire broke out July 8, 2017, just south of Highway 154 near Camp Whittier, where hundreds of students were attending summer camp.
“When deputies arrived, large flames and thick smoke surrounded the camp, with children and staff members frantically trying to flee the fire,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said.
“Without hesitation, Special Duty Deputy Ray Gamboa, Special Duty Deputy Daniel Nelson (and) deputies Brice Bruening, Shaelyn Green, Jeremy Rogers, Luis Ruiz and Donna Wilson helped safely and quickly evacuate more than 400 people out of Camp Whittier.”
Hoover said the deputies then helped conduct evacuations at Cachuma Lake Campground and attempted to reach children and staff members trapped by fire at the Circle V Ranch Camp, where roaring, wind-driven flames, falling tree limbs and dislodged boulders made the single dirt access road impassible.
The deputies had to back out of the fire zone, but they returned once fire personnel cleared a path to reach the camp.
“Their quick, resolute and heroic actions resulted in the successful evacuation of hundreds of children and adults caught in the path of this rapidly spreading wildfire,” Hoover said.
For those actions, each one was honored with the Sheriff’s Medal of Courage.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Neil Gowing and Deputy David Wicklund each received the Meritorious Service Award for their response when the Whittier fire broke out.
Gowing and Wicklund helped coordinate an evacuation effort that led to the safe exit of hundreds of campers at Cachuma Lake.
Gowing also led the valiant effort to reach those trapped at Circle V Ranch Camp by driving up the dirt access road more than once.
But when flames engulfed the roadway, the deputies were unable to proceed any farther.
Other deputies honored
Five deputies who were assigned to the Isla Vista Foot Patrol each received a Meritorious Service Award for their response to a college student who fell from a cliff on Oct. 21, 2017.
Sgt. Christopher Gottschall and deputies David Ashley, Eduardo Cazarez, Shane Moore and Matthew West put their own safety at risk to reach the victim, who had fallen 40 feet onto the sand and was being pulled out to sea by the waves, Hoover said.
The group carried the patient through the surf to the nearest beach access almost 150 feet away and then up three flights of stairs.
They then provided life-saving measures until paramedics arrived and subsequently assisted with rescue breathing and transport preparation.
Sheriff’s Special Duty Deputy Desiree Thome and Deputy Jeffrey Owen also each received a Meritorious Service Award for their response to a single-vehicle rollover crash on Dec. 11, 2017.
Hoover said the deputies climbed through broken glass to reach the occupant, who was pinned inside and not breathing, then helped extricate the victim through the smashed rear windshield.
Four deputies also were each recognized with a Lifesaving Award.
Deputies Steven Gonzales, Jesus Gutierrez, Isacc Munoz and Sandra Rivera all helped save the lives of victims who suffered heart attacks and were not breathing, Hoover said.
In each case, the deputies arrived on the scene quickly and provided lifesaving medical care, which included the use of an automated external defibrillator and application of chest compressions, until paramedics arrived and could take over.
Three units received special citations for extraordinary efforts on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office.
The Human Resources Bureau received the Sheriff’s Unit Citation Award for its unprecedented task of hiring more than 164 full-time employees and completing more than 100 volunteer and contractor investigations from January 2016 to December 2017, Hoover said.
The unit consists of a sheriff’s lieutenant, sergeant, background investigators, administrative office professionals, a recruiter and a polygraph examiner.
Members of the Human Resources Bureau “serve as the gatekeepers for entrance into the law enforcement profession and magnify the values of the Sheriff’s Office,” Hoover said.
The Sheriff’s Special Investigations Bureau, also known as SIB, received a Unit Citation Award as well for continuing to be successful despite financial and staffing challenges, Hoover said.
In 2017, SIB members made 163 felony arrests and 48 misdemeanor arrests and seized 55 firearms, 3.75 pounds of heroin, 2.16 pounds of methamphetamine, 82,500 marijuana plants, 1,700 pounds of processed marijuana, almost 2 pounds of cocaine, 2.4 ounces of fentanyl and almost $160,000 dollars in cash.
They helped in the apprehension of three homicide suspects, assisted in multiple investigations and conducted proactive operations to rescue human trafficking victims.
In 2017, 45 human trafficking victims were identified, 15 pimps were arrested and 35 other suspects were arrested for arranging to purchase sex, Hoover said.
The Sheriff’s Transportation Unit received the third Unit Citation Award.
Despite being understaffed and working mandatory overtime, unit personnel traveled more than 155,000 miles and transported more than 49,000 high-profile, high-risk, mentally and medically unstable individuals throughout Santa Barbara County and the state, Hoover said.
Custody deputies assigned to the unit also helped evacuate victims trapped by flooding at El Capitan Canyon and Resort Campgrounds.
Throughout the first quarter of 2017, they helped transport the 12 suspects in the Operation Matador case involving a rash of murders allegedly committed by MS-13 gang members in the Santa Maria area over a three-year period.
In the course of their duties, custody deputies also located a backpack with a loaded handgun, a knife and drugs in a Lompoc court holding facility.