Ashlynn Elming

Ashlynn Elming | Florence Lake, Edison Lake


Oral Interview with CSRF volunteer, Kristin Telles

On Friday, September 4, 2020, my family and I left for our annual church backpacking trip near Florence Lake. There were probably 30 people in our group of all ages. The littlest kid we had was probably four or five years old. We all drove up to Florence Lake, took the little ferry across the lake and then hiked the four miles to the campsite. The people that put the whole backpacking trip together have a little cabin in a place called Blaney Meadows, right before you get to Muir Trail Ranch. At their cabin they have Wi Fi (it’s kind of spotty) and a satellite phone so they can communicate to people down in Shaver or wherever.

Anyhow, we went up there on the fourth, and then on the fifth we found out that there was a fire in Camp Sierra.  At first we’re thinking, “Oh, it’s just a little fire. It’s not going to be anything huge. It’s so far away. We’re safe.” We were sitting around talking, people were saying, “What’s going to happen if it goes out of control?” but everyone was like, “Oh, it’s little, nothing’s going to happen.”

The woman in the cabin was listening to the satellite phone and giving us updates. She told us “It’s kind of headed toward Big Creek now” and I remember my dad, Tim Elming, saying, “Okay, this is kind of getting a little sketchy. It’s getting bigger and bigger.”

On Sunday, September 6, my dad got on the phone with our cousin Justice Jones who is a CHP up here. He said, “I really think that you guys should start hiking back out, at least to your cars at the Florence Lake parking lot just so that you have a way to get out.” So we did hike back out, but then we couldn’t leave from Florence Lake, because the fire had crossed 168 at China Peak.  We were actually stranded at that point in the Florence Lake parking lot.

This very sweet lady that owns the little store at Florence, her name is Eleanor Smith, was basically giving us all of her food. We had food still left over from our backpacking trip, but she was giving us little snacks and stuff. She also let us use her satellite phone.

While there, my dad actually got a hold of my uncle and my cousin so they were able to go down to our house at the top of Tollhouse grade, right before Cressman’s. They were able to get some stuff out of the safe, some vehicles, our boats and a few pictures before the fire came through.  My brother’s house was actually right below our house so they were able to get some stuff from his house also. They told us that the fires was in Shaver now.”

We stayed the night in the parking lot in our cars on September 6th. On Monday, September 7th,  the Sherriff said that there were about 100 more backpackers over at Vermillion Resort at Edison Lake . They wanted us to drive from Florence Lake to Edison Lake to be all together with the whole group to either drive out or be flown out.  So we got in our cars and we were ready to go. Then they told us that the fire just crossed the road again so we were stranded again.

Anyhow, that day (the 7th) we drove over to Edison Lake where there were probably 200 people and we stayed the night in the cars again.

By this point, we had learned that our family house had burned. We heard from someone on one of the satellite phone calls that it was gone. That feeling of going home to nothing was hard. That was our childhood home. That was the only place that I called home.  My parents raised us in that house, they built that house themselves. That was really, really tough. I felt so bad for my parents because they were going home to nothing. I mean, my mom had just a couple of shirts and pants that she had backpacking with her. We were just thanking God that we were safe. And then we had each other and all the memories.

[Kristin Telles: I was thinking it had to been really scary for your parents to know my entire family is here. My entire family is in this fire.   My entire family is on this helicopter.]

It was scary. At first like I had doubts like okay, we are probably not going to get out of here. Every time the Sheriffs told us we couldn’t leave because the fire had crossed the road (again) it was scary. I wondered if we were going to be wading into the lake at one point. I actually felt a little better when we joined up with the big group at Lake Edison. I thought “they can’t let us all go, right? Strength in numbers?”

We knew the fire was not too close to us, but it was really smoky. Luckily, because it was COVID at that time, we all had masks. So we were wearing our masks to help us breathe better without breathing in the ashes and all that stuff. We had our dog with us, though, so that was good too.

On the night of September 8, early in the morning, we were all woken up by sirens. Imagine waking up to the sirens. They had us drive our cars and leave them in the lake bed– that felt kind of sketchy. “Like, okay, we’re leaving our vehicles here. Hopefully, the fire doesn’t get all the way up here.” Then around eight or nine that morning, we were told to walk down and get into a huge Chinook helicopter.  A lot of the people in our group were really freaked about it.  I thought, “Hey, we’re going to get out of here! I don’t know what you’re scared about!” The whole highlight of the whole ordeal was that helicopter ride. The helicopter had seats, but they fit so many people in there, that there are people sitting on the floor of the helicopter.

[Kristin Telles: What did your dog think about the helicopter ride jam packed with people?]

The Sherriff told us that we had to put a muzzle on the dogs if we were going to take them. All they had was cohesive tape. So, yes, we had to tape our 13-year-old dog’s mouth shut. She was old so she wasn’t going to bite or anything. On the whole helicopter ride my dad was holding her and she was kind of like freaking out. She wasn’t going to bite anybody or anything. Earlier on, one guy told my dad “I don’t know if you’re going to be able to take the dog.”  But my dad said, “If my dog can’t go then I’m not going.” And the guy said, “Okay, you know, let me go talk to somebody real quick.” I remember thinking “Come on, really? You want us to leave our dog here?” So on the flight my dad sat there holding her and gently loosening her tape muzzle.

We flew in the Chinook, there were two or three Blackhawk helicopters too, picking up people from Vermillion. It was so smoky you really couldn’t see anything. Then we flew into Fresno to the National Guard base and our family members were there to pick us up. We actually got on the news on ABC 30, you can see us waving. That was a cool experience.

So we made it out safely, all of us. As I look back on it, I keep thinking of this Bible verse: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” –Jeremiah 29:11