The great awful horriblemendous smoke storm wildfire season of October 11, 2019, will never be forgotten. By me, anyway.
A big fire broke out Friday in the San Fernando Valley, which is like saying it broke out in Utah.
Fires, if you have ever heard of global warming, are now a permanent fixture on earth and especially in Southern California in October. (Note to John Candy Trumpers and people whose environmental statement is a Lamborghini: They are going to worsen.)
Where there is wildfire, there is smoke, and where there is smoke and cycling, there is bad air quality, which is why on Friday afternoon my phone started to rattle non-stop. People who I rarely if ever ride with began bombarding me with air quality maps and texts to watch out, be careful, consider not going north. One friend showed his commitment to clean lungs by riding all day Saturday with a facemask.
Another friend, in a blue panic, wondered if I were truly crazy enough to stick with my mad, suicidal plan to ride north on Saturday. I affirmed that I was.
Unsurprisingly, at 5:30 AM when I drifted over to CotKU, there was only one person waiting. I knew this had nothing to do with the air quality and everything to do with:
- 5:30 AM.
- Deer Creek, the hardest climb in the Santa Monica Mountains, which was on the menu.
Several riders had already sent 5:00 AM panicky smoke-alert-so-can’t-ride texts disguising, or trying to disguise, the real message: It’s-too-hard-a-ride-so-gonna-breathe-the-bad-air-elsewhere-going-slower.
Because if you live in LA and cycle, and if air quality is a real concern of yours, you don’t cycle. One rider texted me to say he wasn’t going north because it “seemed unhealthy.” I thought about all the hotshot crews out fighting the actual fires and wondered if it seemed unhealthy to them, too. It turns out that if you are a wildfire firefighter, and you are right there in the thickest of the thick smoke, especially in the smoke after what’s called “initial attack,” your risk of heart and lung disease + cancer goes up about 25%, more if you do it for more than ten years.
Sounds like a great reason to abandon your plans to go ride up Deer Creek, especially since you weren’t planning on doing it anyway.
But there’s a problem. If you cycle here, you cycle in America’s most polluted air, and that has nothing to do with a localized wildfire over in the San Fernando Valley. How bad is the air in Los Angeles? It’s so bad that the only way to feel good about it is to remember that even though it’s the worst air in America, it’s less worse than it was in the 70’s. “Less worse.” But not by all that much.
Oh, and something else. The horrific air quality here that is shortening your lifespan every breath you take isn’t caused by burning trees and brush. It’s caused by your car. Yes, yours. I’m talking to you. Your car, not San Fernando’s wildfire, is fucking it up. So rather than sending out alerts about air quality, why not quit driving? Or take the bus?
Answer: Because few cyclists here care anything about air quality, and by “care” I mean “do something about it” and by “do something about it” I mean “drive less.”
On the day in question that I was repeatedly warned of the hazards to my health, I followed up with those who had warned me, and learned that they’d ridden anyway, just not north. Instead, they’d ridden south, where I live, and where, due to prevailing winds, the stink was actually worse. The coast road all along Malibu and the climb up Deer Creek was marked with some of the bluest skies I’ve seen all year.
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