Nathan Chen competes in the Mens Short Program during the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating at the Orleans Arena on October 23, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
A day after Skate America crowned its champions, three of the four gold medalists evacuated their homes as fire moved rapidly across Orange County, California.
According to the Orange County Fire Authority, the Silverado Fire sparked in dry brush, then spread on Monday via Santa Ana winds. More than 750 firefighters fought the blaze, with assistance from 14 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection took command of the Silverado Fire and a separate Blue Ridge Fire in Riverside County on Tuesday. By Wednesday, residents began returning to their homes.
“Mariah (Bell) and my apartments have been evacuated due to fire,” Nathan Chen relayed to TeamUSA.org via text on Wednesday. “We are currently in San Diego staying with friends.”
Chen and Bell’s training facility in Irvine, Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena, closed on Monday and re-opened on Wednesday afternoon.
“We’re waiting for the OK to return to our apartments. The rink is back up and running, so we hope to return very soon,” Chen texted.
Chen, the two-time and reigning world champion, won his fourth straight Skate America title Saturday in Las Vegas, while U.S. silver medalist Bell claimed her first Skate America crown. Both skaters remained in a protective COVID-19 “bubble” in Las Vegas for several additional days to film the event’s gala exhibition, as well as the Las Vegas Invitational, a team event scheduled for broadcast on NBC on Nov. 15.
Alexa Knierim, the Skate America pairs champion with new partner Brandon Frazier, was on the ice Orleans Arena practicing for the gala when husband and former partner Chris Knierim reached Mitch Moyer, U.S. Figure Skating’s senior director of athlete high performance, to say they were being evacuated from their home in Irvine.
“I went to the rink in the morning and it was super windy, and I saw what looked just like a dust storm, it wasn’t too big as far as smoke,” Chris Knierim said. “I got to the rink about 8 o’clock and started teaching. Halfway through the first session I got a little notification on my phone, an Amber Alert-type thing, that said that there was a fire and to evacuate. I didn’t think anything of it and kept teaching.”
After a while, though, others at the rink began talking about the fires, and Chris opened the notification. He and Alexa’s house was in the evacuation area. With two dogs and two cats to rescue, he hurried home.
“As soon as I left the rink and walked outside, it was orange, and there was stuff everywhere, ash all over the place,” Chris said. “The winds were crazy. The smoke had moved to right around the rink and blocked out the sun for the most part. I got into the car, drove over to the house and saw a lot of people were leaving.”
Training partners quickly volunteered to help.
“Alexa and I only have one car at the moment — a little Chevy Bolt — and with clothes, the dogs, the cats, the dog’s stuff, it’s not big enough,” Chris said. “I got a call from Nate (Bartholomay, a 2014 Olympic pairs competitor with Felicia Zhang), he was like, ‘Hey man, the rink has just been evacuated and closed down. Do you need help?’”
Bartholomay and his pairs partner, Katie McBeath, arrived at the Knierims’ house to take dogs Diesel and Cami — St. Bernard/Bernese Mountain mixes weighing in at 135 and 105 pounds, respectively — to skater Brian Johnson’s home in Rancho Santa Margarita. A roommate of the Knierims took charge of cats Scarlett and Muffy.
Chris, meanwhile, searched the house for his marriage certificate, as well as the Olympic bronze medals the couple won for the PyeongChang team event in 2018.
“Alexa called me a few times, reminding me to pack this, and this, and this,” he said. “It’s a good thing she did, or I would have forgotten some things.”
Eventually, all of the skaters and animals ended up at Johnson’s home, including Alexa Knierim and Frazier, who drove home from Las Vegas and arrived early Tuesday morning.
“We got everything at Brian’s and hung out and watched the news. … The fire got pretty close to where we live, right down the street, so we are thankful (there was no damage),” Chris said. “You could see the fire beyond the hill near the rink. … All the firefighters and first responders, they did an amazing job. It seems like it’s pretty under control now.”
Other skaters training in Irvine, including European medalist Michal Březina of the Czech Republic, and U.S. competitor Sean Rabbitt, who teaches in Irvine and Yorba Linda, were also evacuated.
“The main concern for my father and myself was to get my mother, who uses a wheelchair, safely out of the house,” Rabbitt said. “The firefighters did a great job. We had no damage and the rinks are open again.”
In Las Vegas last week, Alexa Knierim and new partner Frazier, the 2017 U.S. champion with Haven Denney, performed two near-clean programs to win Skate America. Johnson and his partner, Jessica Calalang, took the silver medal. Both teams, as well as Bartholomay and
McBeath, train at Great Park Ice under coaches Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, themselves three-time U.S. champions, two-time world medalists and Olympians.
“I knew Alexa and Brandon were going to go to Skate America and skate well, because they have been doing nothing but improving,” Chris said. “They are just chugging away, working hard and it’s been continual improvement, day in and day out, which is really nice to see.”
Chris, who retired from competition in February, is now part of Meno and Sand’s coaching team. He works with many of their skaters on the ice and also runs off-ice classes twice a week focusing on training, lifting and twists. He and Alexa are the first U.S. pair to execute the quadruple twist in Olympic competition.
“It’s been a great learning experience working with Jenni and Todd,” he said. “I appreciate them putting such trust in me, being new to coaching. They like having me work (on twists); they just let me run with it and do the technical stuff. I think that is where I excel a little bit.”