“Good Morning, Hell”—Californians Awake to Apocalyptic Skies as Wildfires Rage

Orange-hued skies are due to light filtered through smoke from the state’s worst fire season on record

Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California.David McIntyre/Zuma

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

This piece was originally published in The Guardian and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

People in the San Francisco Bay Area and across California awoke on Wednesday morning to an eerie scene of darkened, orange-hued skies and ash raining down as historic wildfires rage across the state.

The apocalyptic skies are due to light being filtered through smoke from California’s worst fire season on record, according to a 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 Bay Area Air District said on Twitter.

Residents of the Bay Area reported oversleeping because the sky was so dark. Local police forces recommended drivers keep headlights on all day and bridges and street lights remained alight as the sun failed to appear this morning.

Surreal images of blood orange skyline flooded social media on Wednesday.

The skies appeared orange not only in San Francisco but as far north in the state as Eureka. Skies were also reddened across the area near the city of Chico, where the Camp fire tore through in 2018, decimating the town of Paradise. Part of Paradise was under an evacuation warning Wednesday as the fast-moving Bear fire burned through foothill communities and near the city of Oroville.

The science behind the hue has to do with the way smoke affects what kind of light can get through. The sky is usually blue because white light from the sun, which is a composite of all visible colors of light, is filtered through gases and particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. Blue light is scattered more strongly than other frequencies, making the sky appear blue.

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. Smoky air also means much of the sun’s light is blocked or absorbed before reaching the surfacing, making it unusually dark during the daytime.

The National Weather Service said conditions could worsen throughout the day.

“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.”

Despite the scary-looking skies, the actual quality of the air close to the ground was surprisingly good on Wednesday. That’s because high winds are keeping the smoke at a high altitude of around 2,000 to 4,000ft above ground, according to the National Weather Service, preventing it 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.

Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said conditions were expected to remain until Friday.

Air quality warnings were issued throughout the Pacific Northwest, where more than 85 significant fires are currently raging, and people in communities from southern Oregon to north of Seattle have seen blood red skies and choking smoke.

“It was scary. Especially as red as the sky was,” said Patricia Fouts, who evacuated from a senior living center due to a massive fire east of Salem, Oregon.

Roger Gass, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Bay Area, said winds coming from the Pacific Ocean will likely continue to push the smoke across the west, worsening air quality.

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate