Monday, April 11, 2011

So scary!

How quickly fortunes can change. We all know it, but we do need the occasional reminder and reality check to remember that we ourselves are subject to life's sudden turns and twists.

When I updated the blog last time, after stage 1 of the Ft. Davis Hammerfest on Saturday, I had no idea that by late afternoon we'd all be scrambling to flee the flames that came from seemingly nowhere and invaded the town of Ft. Davis and burned dozens of homes. It was a surreal scene for me, and I know that others were much closer to the action than I was and experienced everything even more intensely—thankfully.

Here's the story: We started our second the stage as scheduled, at 2:30 p.m., with me as the starter who would give the final countdown for each of the 300+ racers who were going to leave the line in 30-second intervals. I love this job, as it is extremely intense—screw up on one rider, and the final results will lose their integrity. I thrive on this pressure and had asked for this assignment. What I had not asked for was a 30 to 35 mph wind that almost knocked the racers over. I am used to wind, but this was brutal. Yet, all the racers (except one) who had raced in the morning lined up. The other officials were excellent at making sure that the start order (which was based on the results of stage 1) was maintained, and all I had to worry about was a final check of the riders' identity and then giving them their countdown.

At the start line, after we had to cancel the race—can you sense the wind?

Positioned close to us at the start line was a paramedic, who had radio contact with law enforcement, and shortly after the first rider was off we all overheard the news that a fire had developed far south of town, west of Marfa, at least 20 to 25 miles away, but that it was rapidly increasing in size and advancing in the direction of Ft. Davis. It was at that point that we saw the first clouds of smoke and could smell it, too. I continued to send racers off, one every 30 seconds. The radio communications continued and seemed to take on more urgency, and half an hour into the race we were told that we might have to stop the race if the fire continued to advance. You need to realize that grass fires are different from forest fires—there isn't much bio-mass to burn, so they don't last very long, but they advance very quickly because of the nature of the tinder-dry vegetation. Add to that a wind that reportedly gusted up to 50 mph, and you can get an idea how that fire suddenly was closing in on our finish line, which was about 2 miles south of where we started the racers. About an hour and a half into the race I was told to stop since law enforcement had closed the two highways south of Fort Davis. I think we were all still hoping that we'd have a race on Sunday.

Smoke advancing on the plain between Marfa and Ft. Davis ...
We packed our supplies at the start line, with darker and darker smoke engulfing us. We left the area and I drove to Prude Ranch, the race HQ located about 5 miles north-west of town to wait for the Chief Referee and the Race Director. And this is what the sky suddenly looked like:

... and positively frightening on the mountains' backside
Once the Chief and RD got to the ranch, telling us that they had not only seen the flames but felt the heat at the finish line, it was an easy decision to cancel the remainder of the race weekend. Then we heard that Ft. Davis was being evacuated and that the fire was about to enter the town. It all happened so fast. The roads to the north, east, and south were all closed, and even though there didn't seem any imminent danger to Prude Ranch I decided to pack up the Miata and get the hell out of there. (As i later learned, the ranch was later evacuated as well.) I had to take the one remaining highway leading north-west toward Kent and thus make a 50-mile detour, but at least for a while I didn't have to breathe any more smoke. Once I made it to the Pecos area, I could again smell the smoke and saw the brownish clouds of smoke. I just kept going, letting the little Miata hum at 85 mph (the speed limit out there is 80 mph) with a huge cross-tail wind. I reached Midland around 9 p.m., and it was of course dark—and that's when I saw the fires just south of I-20 between Odessa and Midland. In the dark the red-orange flames were all over. Add to that the emergency flashers of fire trucks and law enforcement, and it looked like a war scene. It was frightening. This of course was a different fire, and fortunately it was contained before it could reach the city, but nobody knew that at this point. More smell of smoke, more scariness.
Looking toward Ft. Davis from Prude Ranch

Fortunately for me, Mike and Candi were at their house on the NW side of town. I had planned to spend Sunday night with them, so they were surprised to see me on Saturday. We had a very nice evening together, and I finished off my drive home to Lubbock on Sunday morning. More wind—hard again, this time out of the north-west. I tell you, it blows all the time! It was so strong there was sand blowing across the road. I didn't get a photo of the worst part, right around Patricia, a place where nobody would want to be buried! Still, maybe the photo gives you an idea of what it looked like, though.

Blowing sand and dust close to Lamesa
So, after two fabulous races in the tropical paradise of Puerto Rico it was back to West Texas reality, plus more. The entire weekend was a bit surreal. Amazingly, it appears that there was no loss of life or serious injury to humans, although the Big Bend Sentinel reported that cattle burned to death and dozen's of homes in and around Ft. Davis were lost. (You may want to check out the article as it provides more pictures.)

A cold front blew through Lubbock yesterday, and this morning the sky is blue and clear of dust—who knows how long this will last. And who knows what awaits me this upcoming weekend when I travel to New Orleans for the half-Ironman event there.... Good thing it's not hurricane season, yet.


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