by Caroline Nolan
Last Thursday, I sat down to write about DCCX. I had intended to write about pre-race rituals and routines. The words for that article were floating through my head but they wouldn’t come out. My mind had become preoccupied.
Wednesday night, the Kincaid Fire broke out near Geyserville, California. It’s in Sonoma County where I grew up. Although I’ve since moved away, it will always be my first home. As the winds whipped up and the fire grew, so too did the same feelings I had last year when the Camp Fire broke out near Chico, California, the town where I was living in and teaching in at the time.
When the Camp Fire broke out, the sky turned black as an ominous shadow cast itself over the town. As the sunset, I watched the flames on the surrounding hills approach town. That night, I was scheduled to drive to Sacramento Airport, then fly to race Northampton International Cyclocross. I was afraid, panicked and confused.
Against the advice of friends, I drove down Highway 99, knowing full well the fire was headed that direction, but it was my comfort zone and I wanted normal. Five miles out of town, California Highway Patrol came flying past me, sirens blaring, to close the road 100 meters in front of me. I looked left. Flames roared down the hillside jumping the four-lane highway with ease.
I was rerouted through a maze of country roads as the fire stormed through the fields south of Chico. It was chaos like I’ve never experienced and left me questioning my decision to leave town to race my bike.
As I look back on the events of November 8, 2018, my story is insignificant compared to so many others in Paradise and Chico, but it left me affected and forever connected to my Butte County community.
Friday morning, as I packed my bags in preparation for the weekend’s Surf City CX race in Santa Cruz, I was reminded of similar chaos a year earlier. I called my mom to ask about the current situation in Sonoma County.
I had planned to stop at her house in Petaluma on my way to the race, and my mom asked me if I was sure I wanted to still come. They were about to lose power, and the smoke was quickly filling the air. Meanwhile, 20 miles north in Santa Rosa, where my sister and her husband live, authorities ordered 200,000 people to evacuate.
I drove to Petaluma. I wanted to be with my family. We obsessively monitored the fire as winds were predicted to shift and many of our friends were given evacuation orders. I tried to focus on preparing for my race—going through my normal pre-race routines. But normalcy is hard to find in times of crisis, especially when there is no electricity. Instead, I focused on the important things—spending time with family and trying to keep a positive outlook.
Sunday morning, I drove the three hours south to Santa Cruz, constantly calling my parents and sister for updates. At the race venue, I didn’t focus on my nutrition or my warm up like I normally would. Instead, I focused on Twitter, forums and news outlets, trying to figure out what was happening up north. I saw friends from Sonoma County who were currently under evacuation orders. We tried to pretend like everything was okay, but we also knew that everything was not.
After the event, my friend and fellow racer from Sonoma County made the comment that during the race, she forgot about the fire. I realized that I didn’t think about it during the race either. For a brief moment, we were able to get back to our normal and focus on riding our bikes.
Unfortunately, wildfires are now a new normal in California. A dry climate combined with strong winds is a recipe for disaster. It affects us all and unifies us as a community.
I believe that to be part of a community, does not mean you have to be physically there. We can support each other in various ways to show that we care. In the coming months (and years), Sonoma County will have to rebuild, again. It will need all the help it can get to get back what is lost.
Last year, at Northampton International Cyclocross, I wanted to drop out of the races. I felt torn for not being in Chico while the Camp Fire ravaged the community. But once I was there, I found a reason to race—it was for my community and to find that sense of normalcy again. With 3rd and 5th place finishes, I was able to donate $246, my race winnings, to the North Valley Fire Relief Fund.
This weekend, I head to Really Rad Cyclocross Festival with the same goal. A different fire and a different community, but equally as important to me. I plan to donate my winnings to the Sonoma County Fire Relief Fund. Sonoma County currently has my heart, and I have my motivation to race for it.
If you would like to donate, you can visit: sonomacountyfirerelief.org.