SciencePhoto Essay

Foreboding orange skies cast more than a pall over Northern California

Photographers document the ash and smoke that are darkening skies and threatening air quality, a view of our climate-changed future.

Photograph by Sam Hall, Bloomberg/Getty Images
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Smoke hangs over Mount Diablo in Orinda, California, on Wednesday, September 9. As the state grapples with a particularly devastating wildfire season, strong winds have intensified outbreaks in Northern California, where wildfires are destroying homes and wreaking havoc on air quality.

Photograph by Sam Hall, Bloomberg/Getty Images

California residents awoke to an apocalyptic landscape on Wednesday as smoke from the wildfires scorching their way across the state blotted out the sun and tinted the skies an eerie shade of orange. California is currently battling more than two dozen major fires in a season that has already burned more than 2.5 million acres of land—a record figure—and the fire season runs for another four months. Warming temperatures due to climate change have led to longer and more devastating fire seasons in California.

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In Northern California, strong, gusty winds intensified the flames of the Bear Fire, which ignited in August amid lightning-induced wildfires that forced evacuations across the region. Those winds blew smoke and ash as far as 150 miles south into the San Francisco Bay Area—lowering air quality to hazardous levels. Wildfire smoke contains a mix of gases and particles from burning vegetation, buildings, and other materials that can cause a number of health problems. It is especially dangerous during the pandemic, since wildfire smoke makes the lungs more susceptible to respiratory infections like COVID-19.

As seen in these photos, massive plumes of smoke cloaked the region in a surreal dark orange glow throughout the day. According to the Bay Area Air District, the phenomenon occurs when smoke particles in the air act as filters that scatter out the colors that form the spectrum of visible light. The particles block out most of the spectrum, but red and orange have longer wavelengths that help them break through the filter. Especially thick smoke, however, can absorb those colors, too—plunging some areas into darkness in the middle of the afternoon.

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California’s wildfires are creating so much smoke, it can be seen from space. In this satellite image taken this week by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, smoke from numerous wildfires spreads across the West Coast.

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A plume rises from the Bear Fire as it burns along Lake Oroville in Butte County, California, on Wednesday. This conflagration—which is part of the North Complex fire sparked last month by lightning storms—escalated overnight as strong winds fanned the flames.

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A hillside behind the Bidwell Bar Bridge in Oroville, California, is engulfed in flames on Wednesday. The Bear Fire has pumped massive amounts of smoke into the atmosphere, which strong winds have spread across the state.

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With the sky glowing from wildfire smoke, Mill Valley Senior Building Inspector Bejhan Razi checks the repairs on a lamp post clock in downtown Mill Valley, California, on Wednesday. Located more than 150 miles from the Bear Fire, Mill Valley had to warn residents about the safety hazards posed by the smoke and falling ash.

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In Sausalito, smoke from the wildfires bathes the Marin Headlands in a deep red glow as Thomas Spratley (right) and Paulo Santos visit on Wednesday. Skies across the region remained dark and ominous throughout the day.