No, You Didn’t Wake Up to the Apocalypse. Wildfire Smoke Turns Bay Area Sky Orange and Dark

The San Francisco skyline from Dolores Park at 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 9, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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In days of yore, when people looked to the heavens for omens of doom, waking up in the morning to an orange-tinged sky with only a hint of light filtering through may have been enough to signal the end of the world.

Today, it takes that plus massive wildfires, extreme heat, power shutoffs, filthy air and worldwide contagion to do the trick.

As of midmorning, it still looked, quite eerily, like dawn’s early light in the region. But if you’re thinking sign-of-apocalypse, that’s not the case.

Dense smoke plumes from several large wildfires burning in parts of Northern California and even Oregon are blocking out the sun, shrouding the Bay Area in an orange glow.

“We have multiple layers of clouds down near our regular marine layer,” said Jan Null, a meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services. “Up above, we have three or four different layers of smoke coming from a variety of fires as far away as Oregon; some fires to the east of Chico.”

Those layers, which cover most of the western two-thirds of California and are filtering out the sun, are made up of different densities of smoke. “In some cases, some of those plumes are 20 or 30,000 feet where they're being risen up by the heat from these fires,” Null said.

Smoke particles scatter blue light, so only yellow, orange and red light reach through, which is what's causing the sky's peculiar tinge right now.

Null says the conditions could last for another couple of days.

"We're not really looking at a good sea breeze that's going to help clear out the lower levels," he said. "Until some of these bigger fires are contained — or we see a significant wind shift aloft — we're going to wake up to these yellow mornings."

The National Weather Service says there's an unprecedented amount of smoke in the atmosphere as a record number of acres burn across California and the West.

The smoke is high up in the air, and — right now — the air quality is not as bad.

“This morning, we're seeing mostly moderate air quality,”  said Kristine Roselius, a spokesperson for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “But as the day goes on, that will deteriorate." She said the North and East Bay especially could be affected.

The North Complex Fire is one of the main contributors of the smoke; that wildfire erupted near Lake Oroville in the Sierra Nevada on Tuesday and spread at a rate of 1,000 acres every 30 minutes, according to Jake Cagle, the fire's operations section chief.

"We've had extreme fire behavior and extreme fire growth," Cagle said.


Jon Brooks contributed to this post.

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