NONGLA, China (VN) — Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) helps his teammates in the Tour of Guangxi this week in South China, but his thoughts remain with those suffering at home in the California fires.
Stetina climbed off his red Trek bike after stage four, looked at the blood on his elbow from a crash before the summit finish, and shrugged. He took his telephone to call his wife to wish her a happy birthday and, above all, to hear how their neighbors and friends were recovering.
The fires that have swept through Napa and Sonoma Counties over the last two weeks have killed around 42 people. Many remain hospitalized or, like former professional Levi Leipheimer, homeless.
“It was an extreme situation,” Stetina told VeloNews. “You heard helicopters overhead, you heard sirens going up and down the streets, propane tanks blowing up. It sounded like bombs.
“One officer said he saw a horse galloping down the street in a ball of fire. It was like Armageddon. It was really a desperate situation.”
Stetina just returned home from a long European season that included two grand tours, a first for him, as the fires began to burn in earnest. One race, China’s new Tour of Guangxi, remained. Cycling, however, sat low on his list.
“I landed from Europe and while I was on the international flight the fire started. You land and it happens so fast as the entire city had already lost major infrastructure. Luckily, my wife told me that she and the dogs were OK. They were holding the fire line about a mile from our house.”
Stetina would not leave the home at any time without his dogs and any essential items in case fire jumped to his neighborhood and forced residents out.
“It was moving so fast so you don’t know. We went into a holding pattern, having the bags by the door. You couldn’t go anywhere without the dogs or bags because you wouldn’t know if you’d go home.
“We were living hour by hour. You are not sure if you’re going to have a home at any giving moment, so cycling was really the last thing on my mind.”
Even if Stetina wanted to train, he could not because the air quality would cause breathing problems.
“You’d walk outside and just wipe ash off your shirt. You’re not thinking about cycling. All your friends are losing their homes and there’s people burning alive. You are hearing these horror stories.
“I know many people who lost their homes, but no one I know died luckily. We’ve lost 7,000 structures in Sonoma County, around 20% of our city has been evacuated.”
Once the situation somewhat stabilized for Stetina and his wife, he went to Lake Tahoe to train. He told Tek-Segafredo he could attend the final race on the WorldTour calendar, the Tour of Guangxi. The week-long race ends Tuesday.
“It’s a weird feeling. You feel guilty that you go up to the mountains so you can work, breathe good air and train just because I had this race. And you feel guilty that you’re OK and still have your house,” he added.
“I literally decided the morning before my flight to China that it looked like the chances of fire had lessened. It looked like it was safe to leave and my wife was in a safe situation so I had to come back to work. But if we lost our home there was no way I was going to leave my wife and come to China for a race.”
Workers are due to contain the Northern California fires by Wednesday. The race continues in South China, but Stetina wonders how he can help once back on the ground.
“Once the fire is done, the rebuilding starts. In my offseason, I’ll get my hands dirty for sure,” he said.
“Whether it’s fundraising, leading rides, that kind of thing I can do. Being somewhat of a public figure, not a huge one, you can do more by raising awareness and helping fundraise than shoveling debris.”