The Fires

My Essay “Riding through the Ashes,” which first appeared in A Life Outside 2 in September 2012 (Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad), interspersed with some photos from my Flickr set “The Fires.”

If there’s one thing I could live my entire life without hearing again, it would be the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s car in front of my house at 11:30 p.m., telling my family to pack our belongings and be prepared for mandatory evacuations in 2 to 3 hours.


The “Old Fire”, which would eventually become the largest fire in County history, consuming more than 90,000 acres and destroying in excess of 1,000 homes, had been started by an arsonist on Saturday, October 25th, 2003, at about 5:30 p.m.


Most of the next day, we listened to news reports described how rapidly it was spreading and watched the smoke build from our balcony.  That afternoon, I even drove through northern San Bernardino with my son Andrew to run an errand.  Day turned to night as we entered the thick black smoke plume.  We wouldn’t know until we got home and watched the news on TV, but the smoke we drove through was not from the nascent Southern California brush; it was from hundreds of homes burning about a mile north, in the Del Rosa neighborhood.

That evening, as the notorious Santa Ana winds continued to whip the flames into a frenzy, we stood on our balcony and watched the flames come over the ridge to the west.  As the flames first touched the trails and dirt roads my mountain bike called home, the fire suddenly became very personal.


Andrew, at the time 10 years old and my most frequent mountain biking partner, immediately became concerned—but not for the same reasons as me.  His concerns were much more practical.  “Are we going to be evacuated?” he asked nervously.  “I don’t want to be evacuated…”  Just as the Santa Ana’s had done with the flames, my curiosity and fascination with the rapidly approaching flames had whipped Andrew’s own fears into a frenzy.

I spent the next three hours trying to calm him down, promising him that although the flames looked close, they would never get close enough to our house to force an evacuation.  Still very concerned, but reluctantly believing his wise old dad, he eventually fell asleep at 10:30 p.m.


An hour later, he, like me, was rudely awakened by the sirens and the loudspeaker.  At best, his dad was simply wrong; at worst, his dad had lied to him.  Either way, how could he ever trust my opinions again?  Bad daddy.


Just a few months before the fire, I had resolved to try getting Andrew interested in mountain biking.  Not because it was my thing and I wanted him to “follow in my footsteps,” but because I wanted him to get passionate about something other than video games.  Not that there’s anything wrong with video games, mind you; but I wanted him to experience something more physical and real, and to come out of the summer having a sense of accomplishment about something other than beating Tony Hawk Pro Skater on Sony Playstation.

In the beginning of the summer, it was often a chore to wake him up and convince him to go.  After all, it was his long-awaited summer vacation, his chance to sleep in for three months, and here was his dad at 5:45 a.m. not just waking him up, but asking him to do something pretty strenuous.  Yes, in the beginning I was lucky to get him out with me once or twice a week, and it was often not an enjoyable experience for either of us.


The typical summer morning ride started with an uphill slog up the paved roads, then a steeper grind up some dirt roads.  The uphill was where the majority of complaining took place.  But once the uphill was done, even a pissed off, tired, and whiny 10-year-old had to enjoy the next part—about a mile of pretty flat, twisting singletrack.  He learned that this was his “reward” for the pain of grinding up the hill.  Beyond the singletrack was a mile or so of paved roads, mostly coasting downhill, past the lake, and then down to the community pool where we’d swim a few laps.  (Initially the pool was the bait; “OK, dad, I guess I’ll go mountain biking with you…we’re going to the pool afterwards, right???”)  Then we had a half mile or so ride back home, where it was time to take showers and have breakfast.

Towards the end of the summer, Andrew had transformed into a different kid.  At one point, he went mountain biking and swimming with me for eight days straight.  On more than one occasion, I couldn’t find the motivation to drag myself out of bed so early, and he came in to my bedroom, already dressed, asking me if I was ready to go.


I’ll always remember the first time he ground his way up the steepest, most strenuous section of dirt road, without stopping to catch his breath, falling off, or whining.  The singletrack became so much fun that we would eventually do laps on it, back and forth.  Then he wanted to explore, to experience a new section of trail or road every day.  He even started to forego the visits to the pool, because then we had more time to explore new roads and trails, and link them together in interesting combinations.  And on my 41st birthday, he insisted we do whatever I wanted to do, so we linked three shorter rides together into one longer ride—the longest he had ever done.  By the end of the summer, he wasn’t just a player of video games.  He was also a mountain biker.


Despite the dire warnings of pending evacuation that night, it didn’t happen right away.  The fire burned ever closer; the firefighters fought back bravely, halting the advance; the Santa Ana winds fanned the embers and the fire came back with a vengeance; water-dropping helicopters and huge fire retardant-dropping aircraft swooped down and extinguished the flames; etc.  It was like watching a gigantic game of ping-pong between man and nature.

“2 to 3 hours” turned in to almost 48 hours.  We eventually were evacuated, returning the next morning to a house that was undamaged.  But the dirt roads and trails were another story.  Riding them was like traversing the lunar surface.  The ashen moonscape was a canvas painted in multiple shades of gray and black, only the blue sky above revealing that we were still on planet earth.


Within a few years, the damage that the fires caused to the hills had mostly been erased as the vegetation rebounded with newfound vigor.  As unnatural as it seemed at the time, the fire was perfectly natural.  Fires frequently burned these hills long before man built homes—and mountain biked—there.  And they will continue to burn, long after we’re gone.


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