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Authors note: Writing this article has brought with it many emotions, as this Camp Liahona is the camp where my daughters and their friends gained and/or strengthened their testimonies of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A huge “thank you” to the Fremont Stake Young Women’s President, Robyn Padilla, and Camp Administrator, Donna Porter, for all their help and insights. Photos are courtesy of Donna Porter.  

As you study the photos, please understand that firefighters had only a third of the manpower needed to fight this fire due to the high number of fires in California at the time, including the Carr Fire and Ferguson Fires nearby. They could not defend Camp Liahona, yet it survived while everything around it burned, including the well-known Dardanelle Resort (dating back to the 1920’s) nearby.

On Thursday, August 2nd 2018 the Fremont California Stake young women attending Camp Liahona at Clark Fork, California, spent the first half of the day hiking and swimming at beautiful Pinecrest Lake. But by 7:30 that evening, their leaders would have them packed and evacuating in cars to escape the Donnell Fire. Looking back on this experience, their leaders can now see that clearly, so many tender mercies and small miracles attended them, even before they headed to camp.

Shortly before camp was to begin, the Fremont Stake was notified that the lake where they normally hiked would not be available. The leaders could have chosen to hike the alternate trail, which they had conquered in years past, but instead it was decided they would investigate other possibilities. What they discovered was the beauty of Pinecrest Lake – a safe and well-protected lake just off the highway that leads toward Sonora Pass and Camp Liahona at Clark Fork, with a very nice 4-mile trail around the lake.

The Ferguson Fire was burning over 100 miles south of camp in another county as the stake prepared for their week, and the Carr Fire was 200 miles to the west. Even considering the distance of these calamities, the Stake Young Women’s President was impressed to order facemasks to take to camp.

After four peaceful and normal days at camp, the girls at Pinecrest Lake could smell smoke and those with breathing problems were able to don facemasks (Tender Mercy Number One). They had facemasks. At this point, they did not realize the smoke they were smelling was not from the Ferguson Fire or the Carr Fire, but from a new fire much closer and more threatening to their safety – the Donnell Fire – nearby in the Stanislaus National Forest.

As the day was winding down, the girls and leaders noticed a plume of smoke and lots of cars pulled over along their route back to camp, with heavy delays in the opposite direction. Because camp is very isolated, they stopped when spotting a firefighter Hotshot crew to ask about evacuating. One of the Hotshots was asked, ”if you had a daughter attending camp, would you evacuate?” After a moment of reflection, he replied, “Right now should be ok…” But his tentative choice of words was less than comforting. Had the girls been hiking one of the previously considered trails instead of the trail at Pinecrest Lake, they would have had no warning that a fire had begun nearby (Tender Mercy Number Two).

Returning to camp meant taking a look at the choices the leaders had before them. Although everyone felt the girls were safe, at that point, they discussed the possibilities. Would it be safe to evacuate in the dark if the order came later? Could they complete some of their planned activities and testimony meeting back home at the Stake center? What would be best for the girls? So many things to consider… It was decided they would seek divine guidance, and the minute their prayer ended they all looked at each other and said, “We need to go”. Had the leaders not listened to the spirit and begun the process of evacuation as the spirit urged, the experience could have been terrifying for the girls, but instead it was peaceful and calm. Lesson learned, always ask Heavenly Father what the plan should be.

After gathering campers, leaders and all the staff together at 6:00pm, an announcement was made explaining that after dinner they would do some light cleaning, pack, and evacuate. After a nice dinner, work got underway.

Normally the Fremont Stake creates a list of the girls and leaders traveling in each car or bus. This year, however, the Stake Young Women’s President created an expanded list to include all the girls and leaders with their phone numbers as one master list. All the information for the entire group was now in one place.

As evacuation began, leaders were able to go to their cars, grab their master lists and quickly and easily direct the camper’s efforts to evacuate. It was easy to account for each girl and leader before leaving (Tender Mercy Number Three).

There was no panic as evacuation progressed but by 7:30pm with ash falling, an email was received informing them that evacuations had begun due to the fire – the Donnell Fire – threatening camp and everything around it. Cleaning was halted, cars were loaded, and the drive down the hill began. Fortunately, someone was in the leaders’ cabin to receive the evacuation order when it arrived (Tender mercy number four).

The Fremont Stake has traditionally rented busses to deliver the girls and pick them up from camp. Last year the decision was made to transport the girls by car (Tender Mercy Number Five). Had the girls been dropped off by busses, there would have been no way to get them safely out of camp without all the vehicles at hand. Help from the closest ward would take at least an hour to arrive, and help from Fremont would require at least three and a half hours.

As the group made their way toward safety they could see the flames and intensity of the fire. Yet girls remained calm. There were a few tears and a little too much nervous laughter, but no panic. When one of the girls was asked why she was crying her response was, “ I am worried about camp. Where will we go next year?”

Shortly after the girls were safely on their way home the sheriff arrived at camp and advised the camp administrator and priesthood leaders who had stayed behind to finish securing camp that it was time to leave.

Devastation surrounding camp.

Seven-thirty in the evening would normally be the time the girls were gathered for skits, games and fun. A scavenger hunt was planned for that night. Had leaders waited until the sheriff arrived to order evacuation, the girls would have been scattered throughout camp on their scavenger hunt, making it very difficult to gather them without causing panic for the campers (Tender Mercy Number Six).

As Donna, the camp administrator, now alone in camp, gathered a few last things she anticipated being allowed back into camp within a few days. She packed up and headed home, forgetting a medical device she would need. The next morning she called her doctor to see if she could see him and amazingly he had an opening. He informed her he felt ill that morning and decided to stay home, but then had the impression he should go to work (Tender Mercy Number Seven).

In some cases fire is good for a forest, but unmanaged fires burn too hot making it hard for fire fighters to achieve containment. As the Donnell Fire raged around Clark Fork, members of the church prayed for a miracle, but all the fire maps showed that everything was burning and reports varied as to the safety of the camp. Finally on August 13th a reliable report came that one structure at camp was lost. It was a newer structure in the southwest corner where the vegetation was very thick. The only parts of that structure that survived are the cement pillars and metal roof.

Camp chapel. Looking closely you see the fire came right up to the river rock border with no damage to the chapel.

Fire devastated the surrounding forest. On Sunday August 19th, Donna, was finally given permission to drive to camp for a half hour visit to retrieve items left behind, and further secure the camp. The experience was filled with sadness at the extent of destruction to the forest and overwhelming amazement and appreciation for the lack of destruction at camp. Piles of ash were on the ground where sticks and pinecones burned. Ash piles can be seen right up to the perimeter of the chapel area yet there is no damage to any of the wooden benches in the chapel. Donna said it was as though angels had surrounded that chapel. On further inspection, you can see where the campers had done their part – there is not one twig, leaf, or pinecone on the ground in the outdoor chapel which could have ignited in a spreading fire.

Why no other structures lost? Each year ward volunteers from throughout the region descend to prepare camp and clear all undergrowth. It is truly a miracle that only one structure was lost. This was possible not only because of divine intervention but also because we had done our part ahead of time. “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).

Lesson learned – we need to do our part. Whether we are preparing for temporal or spiritual challenges, we must do our part and not expect success when we have made no effort.

These are just a few of the tender mercies of the Lord as He prepared leaders and continued to watch over them. As the girls and leaders reflect upon their experience I am sure they will come to recognize many more.

Lessons were learned which will now provide better planning and safety for future events.

The leaders realized they should have fueled up their cars at one of the last stations before arriving at camp. Had they been forced to evacuate over the Sierra Crest to the east toward Nevada instead of down the mountain, many would have run out of gas.

More communication options are needed. As camp evacuated, the YW leaders were out of cell phone range. As the stake president was on his way up to camp he had coverage up to a point, but by the time the campers driving away from camp had coverage – he did not. He ended up arriving at camp after it had already evacuated and missed the chance to rendezvous because he could not be contacted.

Donna assumed she would return to camp within a few days. In fact it was seventeen days before she was able to return. This is not unusual in fire scenarios. When faced with an emergency most people who have not previously thought through the scenario will make assumptions and deny the reality of the situation. Those who discuss and plan are those who not only survive but are well enough prepared that they can thrive and help others. Don’t think it can’t happen to you. Make a plan – discuss it, practice it.

As we prepare for an emergency we should be aware of the lessons others have learned as that helps to increase our chances for success when the challenge is ours. Heavenly Father will help us be prepared long before those preparations are needed as we listen to the promptings we receive. If we have a desire to prepare and are prayerful, we will be prompted and guided. When the time comes and the challenge is upon us, preparation made under inspiration will see us through.

When asked what she learned from the evacuation of Camp Liahona, Robyn said, “If you’re prepared, things will work out. The Lord is real and he does watch over us.”

In answer to the question, “where will we go next year?” Camp Liahona, Clark Fork.