Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Racing the Flames: Hammerfest, April 9, 2011

by Kathryn Hunter

The Fort Davis Hammerfest Stage Race, put on by the Permian Basin Bicycle Association and Peyton's Bikes, has been around in one form or another since the early 1970s. It's been held in its current format – hill climb, time trial, and road race – since 2003. This year, however, was very different. The first day of the race coincided with the largest recorded grass fire in Texas history.

The Race

A challenging and popular race, Hammerfest draws cyclists from every corner of Texas, as well as parts of Mexico and other Southwest states, in spite of the remoteness of its location. Fort Davis, pop. around 1,050, is 7 hours from Austin and 9 hours from Dallas. The closest large city is El Paso, and that's still 3.5 hours away. In sum, Fort Davis is a long hike from anyplace with traffic problems that don't somehow involve a cattle stampede, and on the way there, it's a good idea to keep a careful eye on your gas gauge.

But this remoteness makes for absolutely beautiful riding. After seeing hundreds of miles of dry, barren flatness flash by from the interstate, you almost forget that hills can exist, but as you head south toward Fort Davis, the land begins to buckle and rise. At 5,050 feet above sea level, Fort Davis is the highest town in Texas, and while it's still within the Chihuahuan Desert, the elevation gives it a unique mix of alpine and desert qualities, including much cooler temperatures than surrounding areas.

And not only are there spectacular climbs and scenery, but the roads are empty and the locals are incredibly friendly. In addition to cyclists, Fort Davis is a popular stop for bikers (no, the other kind), campers, RVers, history buffs, and retirees, and tourism is the town's main industry. The weekend of Hammerfest, Fort Davis is teeming with roadies and triathletes – they're in the cabins, inns, dude ranches, restaurants, and streets, and if they're not riding or carrying a bike, you can still spot them by their Oakleys and compression socks.

The turnout is good, the purse is substantial ($7,000 awarded in cash), and the setting is a vacation in itself, but Hammerfest is also subject to the elements. Don't let the high-speed internet and posh accommodations fool you: in many ways, West Texas is still very much a frontier.

The Rock House Fire

The first stage, the morning's 16-mile hill climb, went without a hitch. The weather was perfect, the competition was fierce, and the 17% grade climb to the McDonald Observatory made for a good test of courage. Some riders were able to complete the afternoon's time trial stage, as well, but most weren't able to start it, and some were stopped mid-ride. (Click here for unofficial results.)

My husband and I, scheduled to start late in the day, heard about the fire on the radio when we were driving to Davis Mountains State Park. The fire had just started west of Marfa, the station announcer said, and was spreading quickly with the 28mph wind. Initially, Fort Davis wasn't mentioned beyond a cryptic warning to "stay alert," but when we drove along the park's Skyline Drive, a giant plume of smoke was visible at the horizon.

When there's a disaster, you expect it to look and feel like a disaster – you expect sirens, maybe, and people running. But on the way back through town, everything seemed normal, with just a faint smell of burning. We drove out to the time trial start, and there the sky seemed darker and ash was floating in the air, but wheels were still rolling so we shrugged it off and went back to our cabin to get ready.

Wildfires are par for the course in West Texas, but last year's rain and growth in vegetation, combined with this year's dryness and the strong winds, made for an extremely destructive and uncontrollable blaze. In fact, up until the first week in May, the fire that started on April 9 was still burning, consuming a total of 314,444 acres (approximately 500 square miles).

Lisa Anderson, long-time member of PBBA and race official, was working the halfway point of the TT course that afternoon. "There was a crazy tailwind," she says. "It was so slow going out there, but then the riders would make up a ton of time on the back half. It was taking some of the Pro 1/2 guys 30 minutes to get out there and 10 minutes on the way back."

Lisa says the volunteers there, accompanied by a sheriff's deputy, watched the fire pretty much from the start. "We could see a thin plume of smoke behind us, and we watched it as it spread," she says. When the deputy gave the official word to clear the course around 3:30pm, the volunteers drove along the route and waved riders back. Shortly after the course was cleared, fire jumped the highway at the TT finish line, turning the portable toilet located there into something resembling a modern art sculpture.

The officials and townspeople had held out as long as they could. Needless to say, the rest of the race was canceled, and the town was evacuated, piece by piece. When my husband and I were told to leave, the sky was filled with billowing, reddish-brown smoke, and the lighting was decidedly apocalyptic. As we drove past the hill that had been blocking our view from the cabin, we saw that the fires had advanced to no more than a quarter mile from the highway. People were parked along the side of the road, watching and taking pictures, and I realized that some of them must have been from the subdivision across from us, and that they were about to see their houses, and everything in them, burn to the ground.

For us and for the other cyclists at Hammerfest, the fire presented a disappointment and an inconvenience. For the people from Fort Davis, it was a tragedy, destroying 50 homes and killing herds of livestock, though fortunately, no human lives were lost and most of the town's historic buildings were saved.

Perhaps the only redeeming feature of such an event is the generosity it can inspire in people. We heard later that Hammerfest officials gave out all the water bottles and food intended for the event to workers. Also, donation jars were set up at cycling events across the state, and as of April 15, a little over $18,000 was donated to Fort Davis, including a $5,000 contribution from TXBRA.

One of the ways you can continue to help the Fort Davis area is to visit. Local businesses would be happy to see you out there on two wheels, whether you're on a training ride or participating in Cyclefest or next year's Hammerfest. During your visit, be sure to also check out sights like the McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis National Historic Site, Prude Ranch, Hotel Limpia, and the Fort Davis Drug Store, an authentic old time soda fountain. Keep in mind, however, that with the continuing drought conditions the risk of wildfire is still high. Though the Rock House Fire is now 100% contained, having consumed approximately 1/4 of the county, another 3/4 of prime tinder remains.

This problem continues across the state. Since fire season started in November, 10,123 fires have burned through 2,589,303 acres. Currently 200 of Texas' 254 counties are under a burn ban. This June, the Mineral Wells Summer Time Trial, hosted in an area about 100 miles west of Dallas, will cross through a "lunar" landscape destroyed by another recent wildfire.

On a personal note: To regroup after the escape, my husband and I stopped at La Trattoria, a restaurant in Alpine, which had become something of a refugee camp. Everyone there seemed to have come from Fort Davis – many were tourists, like us, and some were waiting it out until the roads opened again. I'm ashamed to say that I can't remember their names, but to the cyclists who gave us a free hotel room in Alpine, we'd like to offer our sincere thanks, and to Jack Willis, a local who shared his stories from races past, we hope you and yours made it through safely.

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