When “Running Towns” Go Up in Smoke

We all know climate change is changing where and when we run, but watching your training ground burn makes the crisis impossible to ignore.

Photo: Getty Images

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It was Waterline Road that convinced me Flagstaff, Arizona, could be my home.

During the summer of 2009, I was visiting the Northern Arizona town for the first time to attend a week-long running retreat. I found myself trudging up Waterline by myself—too slow for the group ahead and a little too fast for the group behind. As I ascended this dirt road, winding around the side of the San Francisco Peaks, the thick Ponderosa Pine forest gave way to distant views of the Painted Desert. Before I turned around, I made my way through a tunnel of aspen groves.

For any seasoned Flagstaff runner, that was just another Wednesday morning. But to me, a life-long east coast resident, Waterline Road was mesmerizing. I flew home, packed up a U-haul, and drove west that fall, lured by the landscape and a community that values the lifestyle it affords.

About six months after I moved in, a wildfire—the Schultz Fire—tore through Waterline Road, ignited by an abandoned campfire. It was the first forest fire I had ever experienced, new to the barrage of emotions it triggers: fear, helplessness, grief, anger, to name a few. I was naive to the lasting and lingering effects that each fire has on our community. Waterline was inaccessible for years afterward and the burn scar still causes damaging and dangerous flooding—the 15,000 torched acres left the soil unable to absorb heavy monsoon rains, which now rush off the mountain into the neighborhoods below.

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Since then, with every passing fire, I’ve learned a lot, including that wildfires have their own “season” out here, though it’s harder to distinguish the beginning and end of each one as the years go by. Just last week, the Tunnel Fire erupted on the east side of town, near where the Schultz Fire began in 2010. It burned almost 20,000 acres, destroyed dozens of homes, and jumped the highway, scorching the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Oh, and Waterline Road? It’s closed again.

April seems “early” for a wildfire, but then again, the Marshall Fire that ripped through the Boulder, Colorado, area in December seemed “late.” No matter what time of year they strike, they’re becoming more prevalent and devastating to everybody living in their path. Drought, rising temperatures, population growth, and overgrown forests all contribute. In a word (or two): climate change.

The reasons why runners gravitate to places like Flagstaff and Boulder, like the access to endless trails and the favorable weather, are becoming less reliable, even in the short 12 years I’ve lived here. Fire danger inevitably restricts access to the forest for longer periods of time and smoke-filled air makes it hazardous to exercise outdoors far more often than it used to. It makes me wonder how much longer these “running meccas” will remain attractive training grounds for so many athletes who, at a minimum, need clean air to breathe.

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In fact, a recent report released by the American Lung Association found that climate change, namely heat waves and wildfires, is undoing decades of progress in reducing air pollution from factories, cars, and power plants. According to the report, wildfires were responsible for the rise in pollution in the western U.S.—2.1 million more Americans now live in counties with unhealthy air compared to last year. Anybody living in the Western U.S. won’t be surprised by that finding.

We can do all the things we’re supposed to—vote accordingly, for one—but nothing really helps that feeling of impending doom on a hot, dry, windy day in a mountain town. You choose your running route based on a quick escape from the forest in the event of the worst-case scenario. Or you check the Air Quality Index and the direction the smoke is blowing so you’re sure to choose a trail where you can breathe. You have all your irreplaceable belongings and important papers in one place, just in case of evacuations. You have contingency plans.

That first time I ran up Waterline I never considered that the next time I saw it, the road would be flanked by burned out forest, exposed completely on both sides. It was unrecognizable—almost haunting, but also hopeful. The aspen groves survived and wildflowers started popping up in places they may not have otherwise flourished, giving a little reminder that nature can regrow and rejuvenate.

At least until the next fire comes through.

Splits is a twice-a-month column by Erin Strout, a freelance writer based in Flagstaff, Arizona, who covers health, fitness, and women in sports. This space offers commentary and analysis on the running culture, news, and events that move women. You can find Erin on Twitter and Instagram: @erinstrout. This column originally appeared in Women’s Running.

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