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Former American pro Levi Leipheimer was one of the many unfortunate Northern California residents to lose their home this week as wildfires have savaged Napa, Sonoma, Yuba, and Mendocino counties.
Leipheimer was luckier than most. He was no longer living in the house he’d called home since 2006, which he’s selling and had just gone into escrow. Most of his belongings had already been packed up and moved out; he was 16 kilometres away in the small town of Healdsburg, where he’s lived for the past 18 months, when the fire consumed his former neighborhood in northeastern Santa Rosa.
Though he lost a few containers of memorabilia from his racing career, which included podium finishes at the Tour de France and Olympics, he said that in the context of what was happening in the area, it meant nothing.
“I know it’s a cliché, but it’s just stuff,” he said. “I’m alive. Most of my stuff was already packed up. I didn’t have to escape the fire.”
Leipheimer’s former neighborhood was directly in the westward path of what’s being referred to as the Tubbs Fire, which is believed to have been caused by downed power lines due to high winds early Monday morning.
The Tubbs Fire started near Calistoga, on the other side of the Mayacamas mountain range in Napa Valley, 30 kilometres away. But with winds blowing at 100kph, the fire quickly ravaged dense vegetation, crossed over the border between Napa and Sonoma counties, and made its way down into Santa Rosa, where it jumped across the six-lane Highway 101 into residential neighborhoods. Estimates suggest the fire, buffeted by high winds, traveled 25 kilometres west in a matter of a few hours.
On Monday, Santa Rosa fire tore through 20,000 acres in 12 hours, equivalent of burning more than an entire football field every 3 seconds. pic.twitter.com/2hr3zZWErk
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) October 11, 2017
“With winds like that, it turned into a blowtorch,” Leipheimer said.
Santa Rosa issued a mandatory evacuation of its residents in affected areas on Monday morning after the city manager declared the fires a local emergency. On Tuesday morning, the Tubbs Fire was at zero percent containment, with 27,000 acres scorched, including 550 residential and 21 commercial structures; by Wednesday that estimate had been raised to 3,500 homes and businesses.Over 25,000 people had been evacuated, with 11 fatalities reported, and over 150 people believed to be missing. As of Tuesday evening, NPR reported that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company said that some 75,000 customers were without power, including 50,000 in Santa Rosa and 15,000 in the Napa area.
— KQED News (@KQEDnews) October 11, 2017
Also located in Santa Rosa is the BMC Racing Team service course, where bikes, wheels, team vehicles, and more are stored. On Wednesday morning, the team’s chief operating officer Gavin Chilcott told CyclingTips that, “for the moment,” the service course was safe.
“I think it’s unlikely that it will suffer,” Chilcott wrote in an email. “But the personal loss of so many is the important story.”
American pro Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) also lives in Santa Rosa. After flying home from Il Lombardia, he posted on Twitter Tuesday that his home was safe. “Just landed in SFO from Europe and have learned about the #SantaRosaFire. My family and our house currently OK. Racing home now. Pray for [Santa Rosa].”
Just landed in SFO from Europe and have leaned about the #SantaRosaFire. My family and our house currently OK. Racing home now. Pray for SR
— Peter Stetina (@peterstetina) October 9, 2017
Destroyed in the fire was the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Inn, which many in the North American racing community will know as it played host hotel to the Amgen Tour of California several times over the past decade. The nearby historic Fountaingrove Round Barn and luxury 124-room Fountaingrove Inn were also destroyed.
During a ride along with a California Highway Patrolman on Tuesday, Leipheimer visited his former neighborhood. Because of downed power lines, he said they were unable to drive the full distance, and walked the final 400 metres.
“It’s unbelievable to see the aftermath, it doesn’t even feel real,” he said. ‘There are areas where, as far as the eye can see, there is nothing standing. It was like being on the moon, just completely barren, everything totally still. There are abandoned cars in the middle of road, people who had to leave their cars and just run for it.”
Asked about the emotions in seeing his former home, and neighborhood, completely burnt to the ground, Leipheimer said it was hard to put into words.
“I had put a lot of work into the house, I lived there since 2006, so there were a lot of memories,” he said. “Walking up to it, I got a little choked up. Like I said, it’s a cliche, but it’s just stuff. It’s not like I lost a loved one, or a pet. There were definitely animals that perished in these fires. There are people posting on community boards, asking about their dogs, their cats. The CHP officer I was with said he saw a horse running full speed down the road, just engulfed in flames. He also told me they were rescuing people by helicopter, seeing people who were trapped in their swimming pools, and they just told them to stay there, don’t move, just wait it out.”
The Tubbs Fire began just eight days after Leipheimer’s Gran Fondo, a major event in the Santa Rosa area which celebrated its ninth year on September 30. It also took place just one day after four cyclists were struck by a truck in a hit-and-run incident during Jens Voigt’s “Jensie Gran Fondo of Marin.” All four cyclists survived what appears to have been an intentional incident. Leipheimer visited one of the injured cyclists in a local hospital over the weekend, and attended a volunteer appreciation party for his gran fondo on Sunday, before he awoke to smoke and a flurry of text messages on Monday morning.
“One week after the Levi’s Fondo, just a few days after the hit-and-run at Jensie’s fondo, it’s been a rollercoaster,” he said. “I think we are all trying to comprehend it. I think it’s a lot bigger than what’s being portrayed in the news. These fires are not out, they are still burning. The police, the firefighters, they are out there working, but there is a lot of work ahead of them. I had a bit of a tutorial today, on the process. First they have to get the fires under control, then they search for the missing, then there is the clean up, and then they can let people go back and see what is left of their house. It could be weeks. First, the air has to clear up. It might take a rain to get rid of all the smoke.”
— AP West Region (@APWestRegion) October 11, 2017
“People need to decide whether they are going to rebuild or not,” he continued. “The other issue, if we get heavy rains, is that there is no vegetation left, so there is the danger of landslides. And we had the heaviest rains in history last year. It’s going to take years for this area to recover.”
As a resident of Sonoma County for over a decade, and now a fixture in the community, Leipheimer said he intends to help out however he can. In an Instagram post, Leipheimer wrote, “I lost my house but not my home here in Sonoma County. We will make it through this.”
“I know so many people personally who lost their homes,” he said. “Because of my relationship with the city, the county, even the state, I hope I can help Santa Rosa recover. I think the fondo can play a part in that. This is only the day after, so I don’t have the answer. We’re always looking for ways to give back to the community. We raised funds a few years ago for those affected by the Valley Fire, of course there were not nearly as many homes burned then. We will have our work cut out for us. I’m ready to step in and do what I can. As I wrote in that post, I may have lost a structure but I didn’t lose my home.”
Click here to learn how you can help those affected by the North Bay fires.