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Benefield: Cross country teams watch, wait as Kincade fire blazes on

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Windsor High cross country coach Brandon Bronzan wants to talk about running, but that doesn’t feel quite right at the moment.

Bronzan, who like most high school coaches spends hour upon hour with his athletes before, during and after the season, on this day doesn’t know where many of them are. Forced from their homes by frantic evacuation orders issued as the Kincade fire marched its way closer to the town’s borders, the Jaguars are scattered.

“We are in Novato, we are in Petaluma, we are in Sacramento,” Bronzan said. “We are all over the place.”

They were supposed to have a dual meet with Analy on Wednesday. Their home course? It was on fire the last time Bronzan looked. The last view he had of Foothill Regional Park on Arata Lane was of flames from the massive Kincade fire and the parking lot being used as a staging area for a firefighting attack.

“Our park was on fire, the place we train every Monday,” he said. Piner High uses Foothill as its home course, too. “They were staging things in the parking lot where we meet to go on our runs.”

For Healdsburg coach Kate Guthrie, it was much the same.

The Greyhounds’ home course is at Hoot Owl Creek Vineyards on Highway 128 in Alexander Valley — an area at the heart of the early hours of the blaze.

“From what I understand, parts of it are burned. I don’t think it’s all gone,” she said. But she couldn’t be sure.

Both Bronzan and Guthrie said it is hard to think about running or schedules or courses when the Kincade fire is still raging and the danger is still very real.

“I feel like it’s a little bit of a tender time for people,” Guthrie said from Boonville, where she has evacuated.

Bronzan is hunkered down with his family in El Dorado. Both he and Guthrie are trying to keep tabs on their athletes, but it’s been hard.

Both teams, as well as Ukiah, Santa Rosa, Maria Carrillo, Montgomery, Elsie Allen, Piner, Cardinal Newman, Rancho Cotate, El Molino and Analy were supposed to race today. No one will.

North Bay League officials have once again tinkered with the schedule. It feels partly like great organization and partly like wishful thinking to plan for racing to restart in a week and a half.

They will once again hold a race within a race, having teams go head-to-head with specific schools but also score the meet as a league championship. The NBL-Oak schools — Santa Rosa, Montgomery, Maria Carrillo, Healdsburg, Ukiah and Piner — will race Friday, Nov. 8. The Redwood Division schools — Rancho Cotate, Elsie Allen, Analy, El Molino, Cardinal Newman and Windsor — will race Saturday, Nov. 9.

It’s the same scramble that coaches, athletic directors and league officials are making across the North Bay, with everyone acknowledging that sports are not a priority at the moment, but that they do, in fact, provide some respite for many.

“I don’t think anyone is thinking about the cross country meet,” Bronzan said.

Neither he nor Guthrie are getting on their kids to stay in shape. At this point, they are simply confirming they are safe.

“But I told the kids today, ‘If you can find a park, if you are in a good place, running is a great stress reliever,’” Bronzan said.

It is starting to feel painfully familiar. Santa Rosa City Schools director of teaching and learning Elizabeth Evans quoted former Gov. Jerry Brown, calling all of this “the new abnormal.”

Two years ago the Tubbs fire ravaged a huge swath of Santa Rosa and shuttered schools for three weeks as everyone dealt with the fallout. Last year it was the poor air quality that lingered for weeks after the deadly wildfires in Butte County.

We have all become more knowledgeable about air quality. The North Coast Section certainly has. The section prohibits outdoor activity when the air quality index hits 151 or above. Running fans will likely remember that number well.

We didn’t even have North Bay League championship races last year — they were canceled after poor air quality swamped the area.

Just days later — more cancellations.

The NCS cross country championships, held in at Hayward High School, were halted smack dab in the middle of the meet after the air quality monitor went above the magic — or dreaded — number.

They are serious about that threshold. There were runners on the start line when the event was halted.

Despite years of this, coaches are trying to figure this out. To practice or not to practice? And if yes, where?

For Santa Rosa City Schools programs, the message is largely this: Do not proceed.

Every school in the district is closed through Friday. What that means for sports teams is being figured out in real time.

Evans expressed concern Tuesday that even if coaches secure what they think is a safe place to practice — a court in a neighboring town, a workout room in a local gym — there are multiple considerations.

“Does that gym have an air filtration system? Our gyms don’t do that type of thing,” she said. “You go into a gym, ‘Gee, it looks fine,’ you are inside, but what is the air quality inside?”

“For us, it’s not just a black-and-white issue right now.”

Even as section playoffs loom, she is telling coaches and programs and athletic directors to take it slow.

“We are saying, right now, we don’t know what is happening. We need to hold up until we know the conditions are safe,” Evans said.

And they are also acknowledging that despite this all feeling sadly familiar, more needs to be done to craft a road map out of it.

“We can’t just focus on the air quality,” she said. “We need to also consider what is going on with the power outages, pollution from the fires, what is going on with the evacuations?”

Bronzan, for one, said as much as he loves running, his team text messages right now aren’t about that. He just wants to make sure everyone is safe.

“You can’t do a lot,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that puts things in perspective.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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