Libby Caldwell riding on her bike up a hill with a beautiful backdrop

In this special guest post, Libby Caldwell shares her emotional experience with the California fires.  

Absolute. Darkness. 

It could be 2 AM, but even then, one out of hundreds of surrounding homes would have left a porch light on. But no. Not a single light. Not a streetlamp, nor a stop light, or even a TV light. There is just black.

Its 6:30 am on a Thursday, the October sun has yet to begin its ascension and everything is silent. Nothing discernible can be seen from my window. But the silence is really what says it all, at this hour the buzz of school drop-off and sprint to work should be in full swing.

School is closed. Work, depending on where work is, is probably canceled. You can’t write code or write copies or update QuickBooks when there is no power. And so, everything is quiet. 

No apocalyptic storm or power outage has occurred. The wind is calm, for the time being, and the morning air has not yet been soiled with dry heat. 

The forecasted weather was looking to be dry and windy. Nothing astronomical. Not scorching SoCal heat, but perhaps temperatures pushing 90. The wind was predicted to be gusty at higher elevations and in vast valleys. However, the mix of the dry air and the winds coming off the western coast is what sparked concern. FIRE.

PGE cut power and we waited, waited and hoped that our homes wouldn't be touched by fire again. 

The North Bay has been through so much in the last 2 years. First it was the fires that ravaged Sonoma county; deadly fires emerging in the night to kill dozens while they slept. The flames hopped freeways and traveled miles and miles carried by strong winds. Then last year, after the Nuns, and the Tubbs, and the Atlas fires of 2017, in mid-November, the Camp fire erupted. The deadliest in California history. 

I live an hour or so north of San Francisco, and about 20 minutes south of Sonoma county. we have managed to avoid the worst of what the North Bay experienced. We are unburnt at this point, but unaffected? No. 

As we sat glued to our phones/tablets/computers awaiting updates on the spread of the Camp fire in Butte County (about 3 hours north of SF), the smoke pluming from the combusting flames began to drift towards the Bay Area. Once it arrived at its destination, the smoke would sit stagnant for over a month. 

When you have such razor focus on training you sometimes forget what training means to you. You're too caught up in power numbers or your progression coming into a race. It’s easy to overlook the impact of training at a high level and it what it means in your everyday life. Most people have this realization during a time of illness or injury, when their training suddenly ceases. 

It’s something entirely different when you're healthy, you're motivated, you're ready to get after it, and suddenly you can’t train.

Heck, you can’t even go outside. 

I've never been a rider that thrived in an indoor environment. I would rather ride outside for 4 hours in subfreezing rain than relentlessly sweating on an indoor trainer. No binge-able TV show, or nostalgic movie could motivate me to push for hours while going nowhere.

The catharsis I experience while heading out on an early morning training ride is unmatched. To roll into work with the rest of my colleagues having already completed the hardest thing I'd have to do that day is huge source of my self-esteem. My morning ride is mine. It’s something that always gets me out of bed in the morning (well, that and the idea of some coffee). These morning hours          spent pushing my physical and mental boundaries, surrounded by beautiful vacant landscapes are a huge part of what makes me, me. 

And for over a month, the one thing that brought me such happiness and self-worth was not possible.

It’s suffocating. In every way. The escape you once had has been enveloped in unyielding black haze. It burns your eyes and sits heavy in your lungs. A hard effort in such conditions would cause long lasting headaches and relentless coughs. For weeks on end the smoke sat at over 180 micro-grams per cubic meters of PM2.5, or the equivalent of smoking 8 cigarettes a day. The smoke was so thick, making visibility in broad daylight so poor, civilians were inadvertently running red lights and stop signs due to the sheer fact that they were no longer visible behind the smoke. The only safety lay behind doors and windows; inside. Even then, you weren't 100% safe from the smoke. I could tell my asthma was being affected by the smoke even though I spent a couple minutes outside a day. My whoop fitness tracker, which measures your cardiovascular strain and recovery gave me the lowest continuous scores I've seen to date, for over 2 weeks. Yellow/red recovery-high resting heart rate-low HRV, after spending little to no time exercising is a bit of an outlier. Every night I was struggling to breathe. Although you are confined to the indoors, this toxic air makes its way into your home, regardless. You wake up in haze -lightheaded and groggy and spend the rest of the day enveloped in the black haze, dashing from structure to structure. You suffocate in the outdoors, and you suffocate, restrained to the indoors.

While other athletes were ramping up their 2019 season preparation I sat at home. All I wanted to do was ride my bike. Even on a dreaded trainer in my garage I couldn't go longer than an hour without feeling the effects of the smoke. Small fires kept popping up closer and closer to home. I was lucky enough to still have a home unlike thousands in the Chico area but I couldn’t help but feel we could be next. This uncertainty compounded by the unyielding smoke made for an incredibly trying month. The Camp fire would take 17 days to contain but it wasn’t until December that a strong westward current would shift the stagnant toxic air from the bay area.

There's the fear that yes, my home, my community could be the next fire den, but also the fear that even if we luck out- we make it through one more fire season without direct disaster- that we will once again indirectly suffer in un-breathable air.

And while its nothing near as haunting as losing a home or losing family members, the toxic air quality is nevertheless damaging.

It’s why I now wake up in a cold sweat every time the smell of smoke comes wafting through my bedroom window. And now, as I sit in the dark on a Thursday morning I contemplate what I’d do if a fire were to hit my neighborhood. The Wi-Fi router is gone with the electricity, so there’s no way to check to see if this power shutdown has been successful, or if despite all precautions, mother nature prevailed. If she took her strong winds and dry air and used some other sort of man-made combustion to light up Northern California. 

I inevitably think—I live on a 2-lane road. There are well over 2000 homes stemming from this road. with one-way in. and one way out. How will all these people, in all these homes, get out? how will all the other people living on streets just like mine get out? On a normal morning at 8am the only way I can get through almost a mile of backed up traffic to the main road is by bike. We had construction earlier this month where only one lane was available—what a nightmare that was. Of course, the complaints were far too many to read. But it was one comment on a Nextdoor thread that caught my attention-"You're doing this construction-right as school has started-right as fire season begins-are you trying to kill us all?" A fair point indeed. At least my secret escape vehicle, my bike, is locked and loaded for a quick getaway. 

Until the heavy rains of January come to saturate the ground, we won’t feel safe. We will do this paranoid dance every year. Because with climate change these drastic swings in our weather will become more common and more deadly.   

We are weary, but at this point, we are ready. We did not go up in flames that Thursday in October. Because PGE shut off power, the North Bay made it through another dry and windy spell without disaster. 

I would rather endure a couple of days without Wi-Fi and cold showers than to be homeless or lifeless. And so, I look forward to sitting in the dark silent morning, breathing the crisp fall air, waiting to roll on my beloved morning ride.

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