The dog days of summer are coming to an end and many of us are looking forward to the cooler weather, rainy days, and the crunch of dried leaves on the damp pavement. There is nothing like a late afternoon ride on a brisk fall day in the fresh clean air, enhanced with the slight scent of smoke from neighbourhood fireplaces to awaken your senses and make you feel rejuvenated after a long hot summer.
I always look at my calendar with anticipation as the last few days of August are thrust upon us with a hazy sweltering suppression that seems as if it will never end. When I look out at the hills above my house they loom down over me with a parched barren landscape that seems unfit for anyone or anything except for our favourite venomous reptile, the rattlesnake. Many sweltering afternoons I will take a quick glance at the desolate dry hills where I can see one of my favourite trails winding its way up the rising hill but on one particularly beastly hot day I peeked out the window to observe a large plume of black smoke snaking up towards the sky.
California is currently under one of the worst droughts on record and with record breaking temperatures all summer long it has been an endless hot miserable season. Many experts predicted there would be massive wildfires this year; unfortunately they have been proven right. Up and down California, there have been fires at some of the places I have ridden my mountain bike.
As I write this article, the Canyon Fire in Northern California has burned everything in its path. At least 400 homes have been destroyed and the fire has displaced more than 60,000 people. The counties of Lake, Sonoma, and Napa are heavily damaged and several people are reported missing.
The fire first unleashed its fury in a place called Cobb Mountain, a popular area for mountain biking. I have been there several times for the Boggs Classic cross-country mountain bike race, which has been taking place since the 1990’s. The race is held on the beautiful forested trails around Cobb Mountain and showcases some of the finest riding in Northern California. The mostly singletrack course is quite technical and the race itself is very strenuous and includes a beastly fire road climb each lap. I have many fond memories of this race, including my proudest moment in racing: a second place in the expert cross-country category.
My husband Rick and I have camped in Boggs and we have stayed in a quaint local motel in the nearby town of Cobb, which has been reduced to rubble by the massive fire. The communities of Cobb and the nearby town of Middletown have been ravished by the fire and it is an absolute tragedy. For the mountain bikers of Northern California it is a terrible sight. However, as with any forest fire, eventually new growth will begin to spring up from under the ashes and bring green back to the charred landscape and the people of Cobb and Middletown will rebuild their cities.
Looking out my back window I can see that the plume of smoke is doubling in size; soon it becomes apparent that this fire is within the local park system where I do a majority of my mountain biking. Rick and I decide to get a closer look to see if our trails are actually on fire. We hop into our car and drive five minutes through the neighbourhood to find that the roads are blocked off. It’s so freaking hot, conditions are ripe for a fire. Before long fire trucks appear in the distance, blasting their ear-bleeding sirens as they fly by us in obvious urgency.
By now the flames are leaping off the top of the ridge, glowing orange and red even in the bright midday light. Soon the water and retardant drops begin and the helicopters and drop planes fly acrobatically over the leaping flames, dousing the ever-encroaching fire. Unfortunately, the fire is dangerously close to houses; the firefighters work hard to create a firebreak that will prevent the fire from destroying the nearby neighbourhood. Southern California is known to have wildfires so the firefighters here in Ventura County are quite adept at putting fires out quickly. They were able to douse the fire by the next morning subsequently not a single house was lost.
I have never experienced a wildfire that close to my home nor had one affect my local riding spot before. It was quite a new and scary experience for me.
A couple of days later, Rick and I rode our bikes over to the trailhead so we could check out the condition of the trails and see what the damage was. It was really eerie to see the charred and still-smoldering trees lining the trail. The ground was covered with a thick white ash and puffs of smoke were rising up from the trailside as we made our way slowly through the burned out areas. The pungent smell of smoke was literally overpowering. It looked like a bomb went off and it was dead quiet as well; no bird were chirping, nor were tall grass and leaves rustling in the breeze. Now there are just layers of white ash that looked like snow scattered everywhere. The trail itself was reduced to a powdery moon dust because of the many fire trucks driving up and down the trail through out the night. It was safe to say that it was definitely not the same trail that we had ridden on a few days before; we were amazed at how much the area had changed.
As mountain bikers we have a special appreciation for the beauty and tranquility that nature has to offer us and when that natural beauty is changed by an environmental event such as a fire, we are at first upset or shocked by the devastation. We soon come to realize that it is temporary and a natural–and needed–part of the ecosystem. Nature has a remarkable way of regenerating itself and although wildfires can cause massive destruction and many times take lives, humans are resilient and Mother Nature in time will replenish the charred foliage with a beautiful new landscape.
Michelle Lambert is a cycling obsessed resident of Southern California. She loves being outside, training, and exploring new trails. Michelle has been racing cross-country mountain bikes off and on, and five years ago she took up cyclocross as well.