Bond Fire claims Rancho Soñado site, home of OCDE’s Inside the Outdoors program

For nearly 15 years, Rancho Soñado has served as the picturesque headquarters for OCDE’s popular Inside the Outdoors environmental education program. Last week, its hilly landscapes were overtaken by the wind-driven Bond Fire that carved a destructive path through Silverado Canyon.

No OCDE staff members were injured. But two of the three structures on the grounds were lost to the fast-moving wildfire, including the on-site residence occupied by the program’s operations manager and her family, who had to evacuate suddenly on the night of Wednesday, Dec. 2. A number of animals that were housed on the property and cared for by the staff did not survive the blaze.

Inside the Outdoors has a comprehensive evacuation plan that was developed with the support of the same animal experts who evacuate the Orange County Zoo. The plan has been executed many times, most recently in October, when staff members were able to safely transport Rancho Soñado’s animals to a veterinary clinic during the Silverado Fire.

But the Bond Fire was different, arriving with a speed and intensity that made it impossible for the evacuation team to approach.

“We can rebuild the buildings and nature will recover, but we will never get over losing Animal Ambassadors of our ITO family to the Bond Fire,” the Inside the Outdoors Foundation said in a statement.

ITO facitity

Nestled against the Santa Ana Mountains, Rancho Soñado serves as the headquarters of OCDE’s Inside the Outdoors program. More than 100,000 students have visited over the years.

Access to the site was still restricted over the weekend due to ongoing fire activity, and it may take days to get a more complete picture of the damage. In the meantime, a GoFundMe page has been set up to collect donations.

“This land and its history are an important part of Orange County, and in time its natural beauty will return,” Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares said. “But right now our hearts ache for all of the staff members who have invested themselves physically and emotionally as caretakers of this wondrous environment and its diverse wildlife.”

Nurturing a natural curiosity

Covering about 110 acres in the Santa Ana Mountains, Rancho Soñado has hosted an untold number of field trips and camps through Inside the Outdoors, giving students of all backgrounds a chance to explore unspoiled local ecosystems and engage in hands-on learning.

Records show the property along Santiago Canyon Road in Silverado was granted to the Orange County Board of Education in 2003 through the Trust for Public Land, with the intent that the site be preserved and used for outdoor education. The current caretaker moved in around this time.

OCDE’s Inside the Outdoors program dates back much earlier. It was established in 1974 to nurture student knowledge and promote stewardship of the natural environment. An Inside the Outdoors Foundation provides financial, educational and advisory support.

Today’s award-winning ITO program aligns with the state’s instructional standards — including the Next Generation Science Standards — and offers 14 field trip sites throughout Orange County, along with one in Los Angeles County.

Inside the Outdoors also dispatches Traveling Scientists to schools to promote the awareness and appreciation of science. The program has offered virtual programs to students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Committed to serving students

Rancho Soñado became ITO’s official home in December 2006, and over the years it has bused in more than 100,000 student visitors to interact with its flora and fauna. Animals housed at the site have included snakes, turtles, lizards, parrots, doves, a kestrel, an owl, rats, guinea pigs, chinchillas, rabbits and insects.

Four “animal ambassadors” that were inside a field office were safely recovered over the weekend, including two young gopher snakes and two toads.

“As devastated as we are right now, our staff is committed to continuing to serve our students and schools,” OCDE STEM Administrator Holly Steele said.

While there is no timetable yet for rebuilding structures or rehabbing the site, a “Rebuild Inside the Outdoors” GoFundMe page has been set up to collect funds on behalf of the Inside the Outdoors Foundation. Donations will help support educational programs, with a portion of the proceeds supporting Rancho Soñado’s caretaker and her family, who lost their home and most of their belongings in the fire.

Here’s a video of Rancho Soñado, produced in 2018 by OCDE’s Media Services team.