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"It's like they're on fire!" exclaimed my eight-year-old son, awestruck.

We were looking at the aspens, the sunlight illuminating their circular leaves, all aglow in seasonal yellows and oranges. Some leaves had begun browning along the edges, and were carried off by gusts of wind that swept them like golden snowflakes over the mountain lake.

We had chosen to vacation here in October for this: to see the Sierra aspens ablaze in color, to walk trails littered with their fallen coins. We looked forward to ice-rimmed creeks, the sweet smell of pine needles, the evening ritual of sitting by the fire playing board games.

This year in the Sierras, I am glued to the cabin's Wi-Fi, watching with a different kind of awe at a different kind of blaze. Images of my friends' and colleagues' neighborhoods in flames, restaurants and hotels I had frequented reduced to ash. The iconic Red Barn in Santa Rosa that I had worked next door to for fifteen years demolished. Horrified, I tried to contact everyone I knew, concerned about their safety.Helpless from so far away, I emailed and texted them, and offered my home well out of the danger zone. Some were at evacuation centers, some in their houses awake all night preparing for evacuation. Some had already lost their homes.

The contrast of settings was shocking. Here we were in the mountains celebrating dying leaves aflame on the trees, mesmerized by a controlled and cozy fire, my son eagerly roasting marshmallows. And there in Sonoma and Napa, an apocalyptic inferno was unfolding ...


It was the same element, whether in our fireplace or rampaging through a subdivision. Its only agenda was to burn. As I thought about the unfinished ember that could be so catastrophic, I filled several large containers with water and placed them next to the fireplace, ignoring the baffled expressions of my family. I felt so lucky, so grateful. I wanted to never take anything for granted again, and always to err well on the side of safety.

With a Perspective, I'm Kate Gustin.

Kate Gustin is a Bay Area psychologist and mental health director.