Burning Love

An Up Close and Personal View of the Lake Christine Fire

After her new life almost goes up in flames, one recently settled local discovers an even deeper bond with the Roaring Fork Valley.

By Katherine Roberts November 20, 2018 Published in the Holiday 2018 issue of Aspen Sojourner

The Lake Christine Fire burns above The Wilds townhomes.

I had just put down my bike when the emergency alert came through: A wildfire had sparked near my home in Basalt, and my neighborhood was being evacuated.

I thought back to the woman I’d seen earlier at a bar. “Look at this fire!” she exclaimed, showing photos on her phone. She mentioned Basalt, but I didn’t really pay attention. I was heading out for my very first Tuesday Cruiseday—a bike ride around Aspen followed by drinks—and nothing was going to bring me down.

But now the fire I’d dismissed 30 minutes before seemed more urgent; still, it couldn’t be that bad … could it? I called the police dispatch line. “Hi, I’m in Aspen, but I live on Silverado Drive. Do you have any more information about the fire?”

The dispatcher answered quickly: “Ma’am, I need you to get home right now, gather any important documents, and get out.”

“Wait, what?”

She calmly repeated the same phrase twice.

Instead of watching the sunset and sipping rosé, I unsteadily pedaled as fast as I could back to my car, fumbled for my keys, and started to cry. My hands shook as I clutched the steering wheel.

As I drove down Highway 82 toward Basalt, I realized the fire really was that bad. Smoke was everywhere. Flames shot out the side of Basalt Mountain. Cars crawled along at 20 miles an hour or were pulled over, as drivers took photos of the spectacle. “Get the fuck out of my way!” I screamed.

I gasped when I saw the enormous flames near the road, just minutes from my house. I pulled onto my street, and the cul-de-sac was already full of neighbors, cramming as much as they could into their cars. Police officers were going door to door, telling us we had 10 minutes to get out. Ten minutes to get my whole life into my Tiguan? Impossible.

One thing you learn when you’re in the middle of it is that smoke brings silence. A charcoal-gray cloud encased the entire street as we scurried back and forth, loading photos and clothing and fishing rods, and it muffled all sounds. Except for one noise—a steady hiss. I realized later that it was the fire, creeping just beyond the wall of gray.

As I tried to figure out what to take, I spent about 8 of those 10 allotted minutes wandering aimlessly through my house. I closed some windows. I looked at pictures. I stood in my kitchen and stared at the floor. This wasn’t a team effort. In contrast to almost all of my experiences since moving here six months earlier—surrounded by friends at joyous gatherings, laughing, eating—I was, for once, totally alone.

I gathered some art and opened the drawer with my father’s important documents: discharge papers from the Navy, childhood photos, death certificate. My dad had passed away nearly five years prior. What if I lost the only things I had left of him? I tucked them neatly in an overnight bag, along with three outfits, some makeup, and my own paperwork.

I drove to Woody Creek to stay with friends. “Keep it together,” I told myself. “You’re in the Fourth of July parade tomorrow.” Shit—the parade! I’d been looking forward to it for weeks. And now I would be marching in it without underwear, which I had forgotten to pack. (I did remember to take an antique mirror, little good that would do me.)

All night I lay awake or paced the floor, remembering things I wished I’d grabbed: my grandma’s cookbook, with her handwritten note; the letter she sent me freshman year of college; my dad’s hippie driftwood sculptures, hand-painted by his father—the three wise men, on display by my door every Christmas.

In the morning, texts and calls from concerned friends gave me hope. A few had driven by my house and reported that it looked OK—apparently the fire had avoided my block completely. I still don’t understand the physics of it, but I surely understand the relief I felt.

The holiday went by in a haze of exhaustion and forced smiles. The distraction of parties and glasses of Champagne was tempered by seeing other weary Basaltines, trading updates (“Did you hear it started at the gun range?” “Illegal tracers.”) and hoping the worst was behind us. I stared blankly when a man who lived near me said, “I give us a 50-50 shot.” My friend shushed him and I checked my phone, the fake smile drained from my face. That night, in the guest room of another friend’s home, I fell asleep immediately, and hard.

The fire rages near downtown Basalt. 

The text came at midnight and jolted me up, hot and disoriented. The El Jebel Mobile Home Park, two miles from my house and close to the area’s largest commercial center, was being evacuated immediately. An email followed. The doggie day care where my Yorkshire terrier was staying was also being evacuated; she was loaded onto a trailer and taken to safety.

I wasn’t there when the hillside across from Whole Foods caught fire. I can barely look at the photos now. I know the blaze came within feet of the mobile home park. I know firefighters managed to save all but three structures. I know the fire eventually spread to 12,588 acres. I know the smell of smoke oozed into the air and burned my eyes for months.

The next morning, I picked up my dog, Brit; at this point, she was the only thing I was sure I would still have. En route, I passed my place—still standing, unbelievably—and asked the highway worker guarding the street if I could get some things. He wouldn’t let me through, saying only, “Ma’am, I just pray you don’t lose your house.” I started to cry again.

I thought about my dad. I remembered the feeling of helplessness I had after he died. How do you act when nothing can make it better? What do you do when your vulnerability is laid bare for the world to see? It’s scary and strangely humiliating to be so exposed. I did the only thing I knew how: march forward.

All told, I was evacuated for six nights, bouncing between guest rooms, barely keeping it together at my job. People asked me, “How are you at work right now?” I answered simply that I had nowhere else to go.

But that’s not entirely true. I had friends’ homes and a wonderful office and three beautiful birthday parties in the park. I had squeezes and offers of help and smiles for days. Within two weeks of moving here last January, I was certain this is where I’m supposed to be. I told someone at the time I felt it in my bones. After nearly losing everything, I believe it now more than ever.

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