Aspen Princess: Wildfires have a way of reminding us how small we are

Alison Berkley Margo
The Aspen Princess

“Tell me you’re not heading toward Sacramento,” my mom said, her voice tight with concern.

“More like crawling toward Sacramento,” I lamented. “We left San Francisco over two hours ago and have been in stop-and-go traffic the whole time. Who leaves for a 17-hour drive during rush hour?”

She told me there was a massive wildfire burning near Sacramento and insisted I call highway patrol to make sure the highway was open all the way through. I have to admit I did panic a little, knowing what can happen on major California Interstates when something goes wrong.

I was once stuck on this very road, Interstate 80, for two hours outside of Truckee when there was a major multi-vehicle accident, which is how accidents on these major highways go. It makes you think hard about things like mortality, luck and timing. You think, “What if I hadn’t lost my keys and spent a half hour looking for them this morning?” You wonder if the time and place of your death really is somehow preordained. How else can you explain chance incidents like this one that randomly extinguish so many innocent lives, just like that?

I remember being struck by the way Californians take crises in stride, with most people out of their cars, sharing magazines, food and drinks. There were people reclining on the hoods of their cars as if it were a day at the beach and not a matter of being totally trapped and totally helpless for a very long period of time.

I would see this same nonchalance in the face of earthquakes, mudslides and yes, wildfires. In the years I spent living in San Diego, wildfires would happen every year during the Santa Ana winds, and no one really seemed to flinch.

“The 5 is a firewall, bro,” they’d say, referring to Interstate 5, the major 12-lane freeway that is essentially the only way into or out of the area where I lived. They refer to all the highways that way, “the 405” and “the 101” as if they are living things, which they kind of are. Not only did I worry that these fires that would indeed jump right over the freeway, but that if anything catastrophic ever happened, that there would be no way out, which is what happened in Palisade.

The fire in Palisade makes the Lake Christine Fire look like a little, itty, bitty, teeny-tiny fire by comparison, and yet for us, it was huge and all-consuming. We were faced with what to pack in one bag (though truth be told our house looked like it had been robbed when I crammed all of our artwork, valuables and other mementos in the back of Ryan’s truck in a total panic on the Fourth of July before we fled town, not even having been formally evacuated).

Still, it was enough to stick with me for weeks afterward. I would see the orange haze of a sunset and squint to make sure it wasn’t a fire. Or morning fog would, to my mind, look like smoke. I had nightmares about fires and big airplanes flying too low and helicopters crashing into roads for a while, too. Though my husband will tell you I have a very intense dream life that tends to irrationally infect my psyche for days afterward. I think it has something to do with being creative and having open channels in the mind or some such thing. When I ask him what he dreamed about, he’ll usually say, “Black.” Apparently, his conscience is quite clear.

Once the temperatures dropped and news that the Lake Christine Fire was finally, totally out, I think we all began to move on with our lives, as people do. I remember when someone created the “Lake Christine Fire Forever Grateful” page on Facebook, I wondered, honestly, what they would post once the fire was out.

Sure enough, the last post (at least before the California fires broke out), was Oct. 8, with the announcement that the Lake Christine Fire was, at last, 100 percent contained.

But in the past couple of weeks, people have been posting there about the California fires with photos and stories and ways to help. “Memories of July all come flooding back when you hear of another community battling fire,” wrote one page member. Another posted a link to a fundraising effort for a Roaring Fork Valley local living in Paradise who lost his home — so there’s that.

The Camp Fire in Paradise burned 135,000 acres as of Wednesday morning, destroying 7,600 single-family homes and killing at least 48. The Lake Christine Fire burned 12,588 acres and no one was killed. Three homes were destroyed.

I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine who lives in Northern California during our fire and she had said as much, that our fire was relatively small. I was deeply offended. Our fire may not have been on the same scale as California wildfires, but it certainly was bigger than any wildfire I’d ever experienced. It was a mile from our home and for many of my friends, visible from their living room windows. And besides, who wants to have a “my fire is bigger than your fire” argument, anyway?

I think the conversations most of us are having around these fires has to do with the undeniable damage to our planet that we’re witnessing in our lifetimes. Or that our exponentially growing population officially feels out of control and unmanageable, especially in a place like California where rush-hour traffic between San Francisco and Sacramento goes on for 200 miles.

It brings to the forefront our humanness, and the oh-so-painful reminder of how small we are in our existence, but also how much impact our actions have on a larger scale. It is a paradox that deserves more careful consideration. Maybe at the very least, these fires will unite us in that.

The Princess is feeling wistful today. Email your love to


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