People across California, including in the San Francisco Bay Area, woke up on Wednesday morning to raining ash and pale-orange morning light filtering through apocalyptic, fire-choked skies.
The orange-tinted skies are due to light being filtered through smoke from fires across the state as California continues its worst fire season on record, according to regional air pollution control organization the Bay Area Air District.
“These smoke particles scatter blue light and only allow yellow-orange-red light to reach the surface, causing skies to look orange,” the organization said on Twitter.
Usually our sky is blue because gases and particles in the Earth’s atmosphere scatter white light from the sun and blue light, with its shorter wavelengths, is scattered more widely.
But when smoke particles and other pollution enter the atmosphere, much of the blue light is absorbed before it can reach our eyes, allowing only yellow, red, and orange light to reach the surface. Similarly, sunsets are red because the white light of the sun must pass through more atmosphere to reach you as it dips in the sky.
When the air is thick with smoke most of the light is scattered or absorbed before reaching the surface. It may get worse throughout the day, according to the National Weather Service.
“As the winds weaken aloft, gravity will take over as the primary vertical transport of the smoke,” it said. “Suspended smoke will descend closer to the surface and could lead to darker skies and worsening air quality today.”
The skies appeared orange not only in San Francisco but as far north as Eureka, California.
Residents of the Bay Area reported oversleeping because the sky was as dark as night throughout the morning. Local police forces recommended drivers keep headlights on all day and bridges and street lights remained alight as the sun failed to rise this morning.
The Bay Area national weather service tweeted that its models have been unable to keep up with the unprecedented circumstances, meaning its temperature and visibility predictions are likely to be inaccurate.
Despite the scary-looking skies, the actual quality of the air close to the ground was surprisingly good on Wednesday. That is because high winds are keeping the smoke at a high altitude of around 2,000 to 4,000 feet above ground, according to the National Weather Service, preventing it from from settling at the surface. San Francisco is additionally protected by its famous fog, which is creating a layer of protection between the ground and the smoke.
According to ABC7 News, locals should be sheltering in place as much as possible until air quality improves - which could be some time, as the Bay Area is surrounded on all sides by fires. One expert said there likely will not be blue skies until Friday at least.
In some rare good news for California firefighting efforts, the Santa Ana winds that threatened to spread several fires in the Los Angeles area were not as strong as anticipated on Wednesday.
After days of high winds worsening wildfires across California, the National Weather Service said the dry winds expected in the Los Angeles area were weaker than forecasted.
Both the El Dorado fire in San Bernardino county and the Bobcat fire north-east of Los Angeles were threatened by the wind forecast, and a number of communities were on standby to evacuate if the winds spread the blazes further.
Still, the fires are far from over. The Bobcat fire spread an additional 1,800 acres during the day Tuesday, to cover a total of 10,344 acres and is currently 0% contained. The El Dorado fire has burnt 11,479 acres and is now 19% contained.
In an effort to prevent more fires, energy utilities in California began cutting power on Monday night.
On Monday, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) cut power to 172,000 homes and businesses in 22 counties in northern California because of strong winds and dry conditions in the forecast, the Guardian’s Vivian Ho, wrote last night.
Hundreds of Southern California Edison and Los Angeles department of water and power customers were still without power on Wednesday morning, according to the LA Daily News.
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, said on Tuesday the state put “tens of millions of dollars in the budget in anticipation” of this year’s shutoffs.
The Sacramento Bee has a report on when people can expect to get their power back.
The Washington department of natural resources’ commissioner of public lands, Hilary Franz, is expected to visit Malden on Wednesday after a wildfire destroyed 80% of the small town’s structures.
On Tuesday, Governor Jay Inslee said the town’s destruction was one of the most “traumatic events” from the Babb/Malden Fire, which has grown to 17,781 acres as of Wednesday morning.
The Whitman county sheriff’s office said Malden residents will be allowed back into their homes today to assess the damage. Resident of the nearby town of Pine City, which was also in the wildfires path, will also be allowed to visit the community.
Local Washington television station, KREM, reports:
Crews have gained the upper hand on local fires that continue to burn in the area, making it safe enough for residents to come back. The sheriff’s office asked that non-residents and non-essential personnel stay out of the area for the next few days.
Scott and Heather Carlton lived in a historic 1929 home in Pine City. At about 2pm on Monday, Scott saw smoke coming from Malden.
“Didn’t think much off it,” Scott Carlton said. “But half-hour later, fire officials came in on speakers saying evacuate now.”
The family grabbed a few belongings and their two poodles.
“Less than 24 hours ago we had a beautiful house here,” Carlton said. “Now it’s gone.
“A lifetime of my family memories are all gone. I had photos and furniture and other artifacts from family history is totally gone,” he added.
The Sacramento Bee reports that the mega-drought in California appears to have intensified at least one of the state’s fires this year, even though the drought ended in 2017.
The Creek fire has burned more than 140,000 acres in central California, east of Fresno, and wildfire scientists and forestry experts told the newspaper that this could be “a frightening template for other wildfires”.
While the cause of the Creek Fire remains under investigation, Scott Stephens, a wildfire scientist at UC Berkeley, said there’s little doubt that climate change helped set the stage for the fire. Hot weather exacerbated the effects of the drought, drying out vegetation and leaving the forest vulnerable.
It’s the millions of dead trees, he said, that have made the Creek Fire such a remarkable event.
He said a wildfire generally burns hottest at its leading edge. Trees that were already dead tend to smolder – “like a burning cigarette”, the Berkeley scientist said – but don’t contribute much to the heat.
The Creek Fire is turning out differently. He said the heavy volume of dead trees – some lying on the ground, some still upright – is adding enormously to the overall fuel content, making the interior of the fire burn just as intensely as the edge.
“The large amount of dead and downed fuels … create extreme weather and fire behavior,” he said. “The energy produced off that is extraordinary … large amounts of woody material burning simultaneously.”
The Guardian’s Dani Anguiano has a deeply reported piece this morning about the aftermath of 2018’s Camp fire in California, and the struggle of tens of thousands of former residents to return to the affected region.
Jesse Keenan, a climate adaptation expert at Tulane University, told Anguiano the struggle to return home and rebuild after devastating wildfires is going to be a repeating pattern with the climate crisis. “That’s what the future is going to look like,” Keenan said. Anguiano writes:
Nurse Matt Rosendin and his family were among those to eventually settle in Chico after they lost their 1950s-era home in Paradise. “It overlooked the canyon and it was like it was all ours,” Rosendin recalled about his property.
After a difficult evacuation, during which Rosendin spent hours unsure if his wife had escaped the fast-moving fire, the couple sought shelter at his in-laws’ an hour south. They later moved to a rental home in Willows, 50 minutes from Paradise, before buying a home in Chico in April 2020.
“One of my goals was to, as quickly as I could, get some stability and normalcy again,” Rosendin, a father of three, said. “There is no stability up there. It’s starting to come back but there were so many more questions than answers – what’s the town gonna look like? Is the water safe? Could we get insurance? … I just wanted to get back to a normal life.”
Hello and welcome to the Guardian’s wildfire live blog.
High winds and temperatures continue to drive dozens of wildfires on the west coast, where a small town in Washington was almost entirely burned and communities in Oregon and California were also under threat.
Fire has scorched more than 2.2m acres in California, a record for this point in the year, the California department of forestry and fire protection said on Tuesday.
With the weather conditions and wildfires, California’s Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency over the weekend. On Tuesday, he said California could get through multiple crises at once. “This is a resilient state,” Newsom said. “We have a remarkable capacity to meet these challenges head on.”
In Washington, a firestorm destroyed 80% of the structures in the 200-person town of Malden, 300 miles east of Seattle.
Governor Jay Inslee said on Tuesday that 300,000 acres have burned and the state “had more acres burned yesterday than we’ve had in 12 entire fire seasons.
We’ll be posting updates through the day.