On the morning of September 9, 2020, when I woke up, it was so dark that I thought my clock must be wrong. Did Daylight Savings end and I forgot about it? I wondered. But no. The sky really was that dark. Even as late as NOON, it was so dark that it was a major strain on my eyes to read without artificial light.
It did get brighter in the afternoon (I was able to do some reading without artificial light!) And today, September 10, when I’m writing this post, there is a lot more natural light, though still less than a normally-foggy day.
As many of you know, there are a lot of wildfires burning through the Pacific coastal region of North America right now. I’ve read in the news that much of the smoke which darkened the sky of San Francisco on September 9 came from the wildfires blazing through Oregon. (It also occurs to me that this post is going to be published on September 11, which is very infamously associated with lethal fire).
I was out walking from around 10 AM to noon on September 9, which is when I took all of the photos in this post. A lot of other people were snapping photos too.
Amazingly, even with all of this smoke in the air, and the layer of ash covering cars and other objects which were left outside all night, the air quality was ‘moderate’. According to the news, the smoke was really high in the air, whereas the air near the ground (which we breathe) is clean air from the ocean. But the air quality varies a lot in the city due to all of the microclimates. According to the map I checked, the closer to sea-level and the further west, the cleaner the air, the further above sea-level and the further east, the worse the air, with the east sides of the tops of hills having the worst air.
In the 1960s, my father experienced some really intense wildfire smoke in southern Florida. He grew up with the idea of wildfires ruining the air in a way that I did not (it’s only in the past few years that the San Francisco Bay Area has been having these intense wildfire smoke events). The air in southern Florida got so bad that he got a disease in one of his eyes that had to be treated by a doctor. But my dad said that, even during the worst Florida wildfires of his youth, the sky never got as dark as it did on September 9 in San Francisco.
I don’t think the plants got much photosynthesis done on September 9th. If it’s just a one-time event, it’s probably not a big deal for them. But if this were a long-term event, and the plants never got much chance to photosynthesize…I now have a better appreciation for how volcanic eruptions spewing ash into the air for ten years causes mass die-offs.
We’re the lucky ones: we aren’t in the path of the wildfires ourselves. Dark skies, at least in the short term, are a zillion times better than having to evacuate your home which is about to be destroyed, or dying because you couldn’t evacuate. As I’m writing this, wildfires are ripping through the Rogue River Valley in Oregon. I’ve visited Ashland five times, and I’ve passed through Talent, Phoenix, and Medford. I had even contemplated visiting Ashland again this year before it became apparent that 2020 is not a good year for travel.
I remember the lightning storm we had in August because a) it woke me up and b) lightning storms in the Bay Area at any time of year are rare, and the few we have occur in winter; having a lightning storm in AUGUST is downright unreal. Heck, even getting rain in August is unreal.
Not that I haven’t encountered surprise-summer-lighting-storms in California before: when I hiked Hat Creek Rim, which is notorious for being the driest, hottest stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail in Northern California, there had been a surprise lightning storm with rain in the early morning which caught all of the campers by surprise. That day, it seemed like lightning and rain could back on short notice. When I set up camp on Hat Creek Rim itself, all of the hikers were making sure that their rainflys were set well (which was funny given Hat Creek Rim’s reputation for never having rain, or even moisture, in summer). And yes, that lightning storm started some fires. I talked to a retired fire dispatcher that day, and she said that we should be grateful that it was a wet lightning storm; fires caused by dry lightning storms are much harder to control. I didn’t run into any of the wildfires myself, but I talked to hikers going in the other direction who saw fire right on the trail (there were also firefighters on the trail, who presumably extinguished the fire before I got there). I could see smoke from wildfires in the distance, but they were all on the other side of a road with a bunch of firefighter trucks, so I thought it was safe to proceed. I did take special note of nearby cow-ponds where I could shelter from fire if necessary.
After that lightning storm, which started a bunch of historic wildfires in the Bay Area, when my mother was watching the news on TV, she realized that my cousin lived in one of the areas which were warning residents to prepare for evacuation orders. She called said cousin. I did not hear the conversation, but my mother said that my cousin was planning to drive all the way to Oregon on Interstate-5 if an evacuation was issued.
My mother thought this was utterly senseless, and I agree with her. First of all, going through Interstate-5 would have put my cousin near some areas which were already on fire, which, even if the roads weren’t closed, meant that she would have to deal with the traffic of other wildfire evacuees. And north of Redding, Interstate-5 goes through prime wildfire territory which can catch fire at any time during the fire season. And then…Oregon, especially the part where Interstate-5 runs, is also prime wildfire territory, which is tragically being proven right now (Interstate-5 goes straight through Medford/Ashland/Talent/Phoenix). Even if Oregon hadn’t caught on fire this year, trying to get lodging with no notice when lots of people are evacuating is difficult. Since my cousin lives a lot closer to San Francisco than to Oregon, it’s a much, much shorter drive, which is important in emergencies.
My mother invited my cousin and her cats to move in with us if she evacuates. My cousin expressed concern that San Francisco might burn, which my mother said was ridiculous. And I agree with my mother, aside from a very few, specific parts of San Francisco (i.e. San Bruno Mountain) San Francisco isn’t a wildfire zone. We get too much fog, and we’re one of the most urbanized areas in the entire United States. My cousin expressed concern that the wildfires in Marin could jump the Golden Gate, which, like my mother, I think is ridiculous. I suppose sparks could jump the 1 mile (1.6 km) distance, but San Francisco has fireboats that can douse anything near the coast (including the Golden Gate Bridge) with seawater. I suspect my cousin had some other reason for not wanting to ask us for shelter that she did not want to disclose to my mother, so the thing about wildfires spreading to San Francisco from Marin was just cover. Finally, my mother convinced my cousin not to try to go to Oregon, and that if she evacuated, she would first go to another cousin’s home (they were childhood friends, so I’m not surprised that he is her first choice). If that other cousin couldn’t take her in, she agreed that she would come to us.
We hastily prepared to take in another person (and her cats) into our household, but, being hasty, the preparations were much less than ideal. Thankfully, she did not have to evacuate at all, and (for now) her location seems safe. But in these times, being ready to take in new household members on short notice is good practice for everyone who has some kind of housing security.
If it weren’t for all of the suffering caused by the fires, I’d say that seeing such a dark, orange sky in San Francisco at noon was pretty cool as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But, the scary thing is that it might turn out to be a more-than-once-in-a-lifetime experience.