Northern Coast California XC Programs Trying To Rebuild After Tragic Fire

Carrie Joseph spent part of Tuesday looking outside a window in her home as a helicopter dropped water from a specialized bucket hanging from a cable on what remained of the North Coast wildfire on a nearby state park. 

She and her husband were lucky. 

Joseph returned to her home Monday, nearly a week after residents in Santa Rosa, California, were evacuated from the disastrous and deadly fires that ravaged wine county around Sonoma County. Some returned to their homes. But many weren't as fortunate. 

Tragic stories now proliferate around Sonoma as houses vanished in smoke and innocent lives were lost in a flash. Nearly 80 students at Santa Rosa High were displaced or their homes burned to the ground, Joseph said, including eight on her cross country team. 

"When you live in California, October is always fire season," she said. "Sometimes you hold your breath and hope the winds don't come."

Joseph evacuated her home last Monday in the early hours of the morning, when flames were just on the horizon. She read the series of fires around the area were "one in 100 year" conditions. 

"Governor (Jerry) Brown said it's the worst natural disaster in California history," Joseph said, "which says something." 

Half of a nearby Catholic school, Cardinal Newman, was burned to the ground, while students at Maria Carrillo, Montgomery, Pine, and Sonoma Academy all felt the pulse of one of the worst disasters in the city's history. Greg Fogg, the coach at Maria Carrillo, lost his home. A neighborhood in Fountaingrove, northeast of Santa Rosa, was consumed by the Tubbs fire. 

"This fire was extremely large in terms of its impact, and not just in acreage but the devastation across our city," Fogg said. "Yesterday I took a drive. I've been cooped up and busy, but I took a drive and it was really humbling. Not just to see it on a map, but to go out and drive it. I don't know; a lot of people described it as apocalyptic. I know it will take years of recovery to get through. This the beginning of a long haul."

Fogg owned his home for 23 years and knows he will never be able to get back some of its history, but he's not really worried on that. He knows he'll be able to work forward from here. He's more worried about his team and their futures. 

"When you live in California, October is always fire season," she said. "Sometimes you hold your breath and hope the winds don't come."

"I'm worried about the kids whose parents may have been renting, who may have lost all of their possessions, who might not have jobs to come back to," he said. "We're in the process of identifying kids who are most needing support right now." 

In some ways, it's trying just to move on. Some student-athletes and their families have yet to move back into the area. Some neighborhoods were completely left to rubble. Fogg had six athletes who travelled to Reno, Nevada, to outrun the fire. At least there, he said, they could train. 

"We all wear a lot of hats, right?" he said. "So one is for my family. The other one is for my responsibility for my job. I'm not a teacher or part-time coach. I have a full-time job and I'm part-time coach. So making sure we're getting ready to get back on board there is a priority. A fourth tier is my coaching responsibilities."

Running is the least of most people's concerns. 

"It's been a challenge, obviously," Joseph said. "We're just trying to get by. It's day-by-day for most people. Not only did eight kids lose their homes, but most people got evacuated, so they're not in their homes."

The larger realization is that normalcy may not return for some time. Air quality in the city is unfit for most, including the student-athletes on the cross country team. The local park where the Santa Rosa program trains and competes, Spring Lake, has been nearly three-quarters burnt. The course was home for the Sonoma County League and North Bay League. Other training areas have been leveled, too. 

"At this point, we don't really know where we'll house our remaining home meets," Joseph said. "We've altered our schedule and canceled some of our meets." 

Joseph and other coaches from Sonoma County school programs met recently to discuss the remaining schedule. One saving grace is the fact that the California Interscholastic Federation XC Championships are held on November 25; it's one of the last state associations to finish their season in the country, and also acts as a Foot Locker and NXN qualifier. 

And a respite to some has been in getting back to routine, even if that has been altered, too. Local gyms have offered free memberships or use of treadmills to athletes who have no access to school facilities. 

"It's not everyone's favorite way to train, but it's something," Joseph said. 

In the meantime, Joseph was in attendance for a team gathering a few days ago. Nearly 30 athletes showed up. She hopes to have another at her house soon. 

The high schools have received donations locally from those who have offered help and assistance. Joseph and fellow coaches are trying to decide on ways to distribute donations, including "30 pairs of brand-new shoes." But many more supplies are needed. 

Fogg, whose team competes in Division 3 and is considered a state podium contender, met with Santa Rosa area coaches from 10 high schools this week to gather up ideas on how to move on effectively from the fire. 

"We're starting to think about what will we do, long-term and short-term," he said. "We might end up with athletes displaced and we might have different teams than when we started." 

While running isn't the priority right now for most in the area, some have found comfort in the cadence of a normal rhythm again. Maybe, just maybe, athletes can go outside soon and run.  

"We're runners, right?" Joseph said. "We put one foot over the other and hope for the best." 

"It's therapy to a lot of my athletes," Fogg said. "The air quality is getting better. Hopefully we can run in a few days."