It was late in the afternoon on Thursday, November 8 and I was getting ready spin to Ride and Pint, our weekly Thursday night mountain bike ride at Pedalers Fork in Calabasas, California. A friend in nearby Oak Park had just called and said he was skipping the ride and couldn’t give me a lift home—the smoke at his house was too thick. Smoke? There was a ten-acre fire at Woolsey and was spreading. He suggested that I should skip the ride. The wind was whipping and the sky was turning burnt orange to the north but the air was still clear. I don’t skip rides. I pedaled the quarter-mile to the Chesebro parking lot only to have three rangers turn me away. There was a fire coming toward the park and it was closed. Thick black smoke rose above Albertson Ridge in the distance and dozens of small aircraft swarmed above. A 20-minute climb at race pace. I could probably find another way around. I mentally rerouted my commute.
“How long do we have?” I asked the ranger.
“Could be here in couple hours, but could be 30 minutes if the wind changes. You should go home and spray off your roof.” I skipped the ride. I sprayed off my roof and packed.
Three hours later, the sheriffs were on our street announcing through their megaphones that it was time to leave. We loaded up the kids and drove to stay with family in the South Bay. I didn’t even take a bike. I fell asleep watching the fire burn into Oak Park and consume homes surrounding my son’s school. Its path of destruction read like a Strava upload; segment after segment the fire raced along snatching KOMs up and down our trails. From Woolsey it burned along Albertson, through China Flat, down Dead Cow and Suicide, down Palo Camado it sped, down Lookout through The Gut and right into the Chesebro parking lot where I stood a few hours before contemplating my alternate route to Calabasas. Always listen to the rangers.
Friday morning I awoke to aerial footage of my neighborhood. The fire had jumped the 101 Freeway at Chesebro Road. Did we still have a house? I recognized every shot from the helicopter. The flames were marching up Bulldog. Malibu Creek was burning. Millennium Trail was on fire. Backbone Trail was being used as a fire break. The flames were cresting over Mesa Peak and it was now headed down Zuma Ridge toward Malibu. The fire followed an invisible course; a perfectly plotted route more suited for a local gravel grinder than a blowing inferno.
In its wake, the fire left a smoldering wreckage. It’s been over two weeks and stumps are still smoldering. The trails are a baked terra-cotta, or at least they are until the rains come and erase them completely. The landscape is unrecognizable. Trails that I have been ridden hundreds of times now look completely foreign. Where ancient oaks stood there are now piles of white ash. Late last week what’s left of Chesebro reopened. It’s eerily silent. The main bridge into the park has completely burned away. We are starting to return, as outdoor enthusiasts we can’t stay away for long, with a new realization about the fragility of our communal space. It can be taken away so easily.
I fully acknowledge that losing our trails to a fire doesn’t begin to compare to the loss of life or personal property. It’s more akin to losing a second home; not a primary dwelling filled with the physical manifestation of our life, but an escape, a place to visit on the weekends and leave our lives behind for a few hours. A place to get in touch with nature. It’s why we live here, squeezed between the wild and the urban, directly in the path of the fire. Seventeen million people live within an hour’s drive of the Santa Monica Mountains and we just lost 88 percent of the park, that’s a devastating loss for Southern California. Trees and plants will slowly regrow and trails and structures will be rebuilt, but with federal parks short on funds we are all aware that this rebirth will not happen overnight. We are just beginning to assess the damage as many areas remain closed and inaccessible, but I’m not optimistic.
It’s only been two weeks but the cycling community has begun to come together, hosting fundraisers and scheduling events to fund the restoration. Community spirit is rekindled. Neighbor helping neighbor. Our house was saved by a neighbor who stayed home and fought the flames with his garden hose. On the trails now there are more “hellos” and solemn nods. I always wave when I’m on the bike and take a mental tally of how many responses I get back. So far the sample size is still small, but post-fire greetings have been dramatically more reciprocated.
This essay originally appeared on Amp Human Performance.