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There’s No Ignoring California’s Apocalyptic Orange Skies

Nature sends us a wake-up call.

Orange sky descended upon San Francisco as wildfires burned in California. There is a picture of a city street with buildings on either side and an orange hue everywhere. Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

It’s gone now, and none of the pictures quite captured what it was like. I live in Oakland, and none of the photographs taken in the Bay Area yesterday accurately depict what it was really like — the sickly, hideous orange of the sky, the creeping feeling of dread, the uncanny disquiet when the sun simply … didn’t rise. It wasn’t just that iPhones filtered out the hellish color that skies simply shouldn’t be. It was the way it stayed as dark as predawn all day until, abruptly, it was evening, and then bedtime — like an all-day eclipse. It was the way the sky was so much bigger and wider and more awesomely present than something that is usually so dull and cloudy and dark has any right to be. The pictures you saw shared online looked exactly like apocalyptic movies, like the sepia filter Hollywood uses to make Mexico, India, and the Middle East look like Blade Runner 2049. But that familiarity was misleading. This looked like nothing you’ve ever seen. Like nothing you’d ever want to see.

We closed the windows (of course), but also closed the shades and lowered the blinds, and looked away from the eerie bloody gold light creeping through the gaps. We looked at the clock to remind ourselves of what time it was and were never quite convinced. We stifled our brains’ flight responses and were careful to only panic on social media. We stayed indoors. We didn’t walk the dogs. We waited for it to be over.

Is it over? The light is still a little bit off, but as I’m writing these words, it feels almost like a normal morning in Northern California during fire season: hazy and drab, with a dull gray sky that you might mistake for clouds or fog. There’s enough smoke in the air that we still check airnow.gov or purpleair.com to find out how safe the air is to breathe. It reads: PM2.5: 175 — “Unhealthy.” But the sun came up, so we went about our day. Ash is falling from the sky, but this is what normal feels like now. This is fine.

In a sense, it’s true. There’s smoke here, but there isn’t fire. It’s hard to explain to relatives in other parts of the country not currently on fire that we weren’t, personally, in any danger. Just as it’s hard to convince your brain that the sun being blotted out of the sky is no big deal. But wildfire is not likely to touch most of the Bay Area. The Oakland hills have burned before, and likely will again, but the fires burning now are far from my home (on the doorstep, as it happens, of the footprint of the 2018 Camp Fire). California’s forests are built to burn and must burn and will burn. This is not even a bad thing: When under the care of more careful stewards than us, California’s forests burned much more than they ever have since.

What has changed, for those of us in urban California, is that fire season isn’t something that you can ignore. After a century of fire suppression, ecological neglect, and malpractice, global warming is forcing itself on us. Yesterday was the sort of freak experience you can’t forget. No one remembers something like this happening before. It makes an impression on you. It makes you wonder why climate change isn’t the only thing anyone talks about and why we aren’t all on strike until something is done. The orange sky of September 9 was a meteorological fluke, the result of smoke that has been swirling across the state for weeks — from the Bear fire to the north, or the LNU lightning complex to the northeast, or the SCU lightning complex to the southeast, or the CZU lightning complex to the southwest (or all of the above) — getting caught above the marine layer blowing in from the Pacific. Instead of falling to the earth to be breathed into our lungs, like it normally does, it hung in the air, blotting out the sun. It was an experience, strange beyond words, “beyond the scope of our models” as the National Weather Service helpfully tweeted.

Now that it’s over, did September 9 mean anything? It surely means something that every city in the I-5 corridor, from San Diego to Seattle, is looking up at smoky skies right now. Those layers of smoke make it impossible to see the Pacific coast from space. It must mean something that tens of thousands of people have been displaced or evacuated and that, barely a month into fire season, more of California has burned in 2020 than in any year prior, It means something that most of the biggest and worst fires in California history have happened in last five years. It must mean something that “fire season” has evolved from a period of increased awareness and caution to a months-long season of omnipresent smoke and dread. It must mean something that fire now creates its own weather.

Fire season will go on until we get rain, like it does every year (though the rain comes later and later). In the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles, the Bobcat fire is expected to burn until October 15. The sun will glow red again, even if the whole sky does not. But if the day that the sun didn’t rise can’t wake us all up — from the East Coast to the West Coast — then what signal must providence cook up next?