A year ago last night a fire broke out near Tubbs Lane on the outskirts of Calistoga, Calif. Earlier in the day I’d been driving back from Quincy and Giro’s Grinduro. Entering Yuba City the winds bent trees, ripped leaves from the branches and swirled sand into my eyes as I filled my gas tank. Passing through Napa County, I saw black smoke rising from a structure fire and said out loud, “They need to get on top of that before it spreads across the valley.”
Little did I know.
That night, winds that blew at 50 mph and gusted to 75 mph got channeled into a sequence of canyons that focused that intensity into hurricane force, with a ferocity that no power line can survive. The Tubbs fire covered much the same ground as 1964’s Hanley fire, but what the Hanley fire destroyed over four days—homes, farms, vineyards, cars, animals and people—the Tubbs fire rendered to cinders in just four hours.
The sun, more than an hour after sunrise, choked by smoke.
The devastation the fire wrought resulted in 44 deaths, fatalities that still seem avoidable had communication been better. We lost 5300 structures in Sonoma County alone, among those, some 3000 homes. I’ve lost count of the number of friends and acquaintances who lost their homes.
I watched the hillside behind my home engulfed in smoke and flame, a swirling gray-orange glow that roared like a distant train caused my neighbors to stare, mouths slack to their incomprehension, even as I made repeated trips to the car with clothing, hard drives, bikes and, finally, kids. The prospect that the fire was burning downhill, after it had worked its way up the hill and across in the time I’d been asleep, it all confounded my understanding. The lead image on this post was my view from the evacuation center at 7:00 in the morning, some three hours after we arrived.
I kid that while I did lose a refrigerator full of food due to the power outage, I needed to throw out a third of it anyway.
With so much of the understory burned away, I’d never seen the ridge in the distance before.
That so many of you responded in the wake of the fires by sending boxes of clothing is one of those kindnesses that will stay with me to the end of my days. I lost count of how many boxes arrived, more surprising still is that I’ve continued to encounter other riders who could use an extra kit or two as recently as July.
I am reminded of the fire every time I venture into Annadel for a gravel or mountain bike ride. Blackened trees, bark that turns to powder when you touch it, soil that is more ash than dirt, the physical signs are ever-present, and sometimes accompanied by the bulldozer tracks made by the fire crew that defended the park.
Last week we received several inches of rain in two different storms and the entire North Bay exhaled in relief, only to be brought up short by a National Weather Service Red Flag Warning as evidenced by temperatures in the high 80s and humidity below 30 percent plus winds that are by turns gentle then blustery. Hot and dry in October now carries with it the anxious dread I recall from my childhood when I got intro trouble at school and dreaded the arrival of my dad home from work.
Cal Fire felled burned out trees and cut up the ones that blocked trails in Trione-Annadel State Park.
I love this place the way I love my children and while it has always been my intent to mine the personal to find the universal, I accept that what I’m sharing now is only as universal as it reaches those riders who live in places equally susceptible to wildfire. For that, I apologize. This isn’t what I’d call entertaining. I’ve got work to keep me busy, especially with the Ronde et Vous looming this weekend. However, today, my thoughts are with my friends who lost their homes, with the park that is equal parts playground and refuge, with a town that won’t survive another fire like last year’s.
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