fb-pixel Skip to main content

Smoke from wildfires blocks out the sun in Northern California

The Golden Gate Bridge was barely visible through smoke from wildfires Wednesday morning in this view from Fort Baker near Sausalito, Calif.Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Wildfires were ripping through several Western states on Wednesday, destroying homes and forcing thousands of people to evacuate as an extraordinary number of blazes raged in California, Washington, and Oregon.

A combination of wind and heat fueled the growing fires, which have led to dramatic escape scenes and smoke-clouded skies that produced an ominous orange glow as the sun rose in the Bay Area.

Authorities also ordered urgent, middle-of-the-night evacuations as fire tore through the wooded hills around Lake Oroville in Northern California.

More than 2.5 million acres of land have burned in California this year — nearly 20 times what had burned at this time last year — and there have been 2,650 more fires than at this point in 2019. The state is not alone in battling an unprecedented fire season.


In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee said the 330,000 acres that had burned across the state were more than what burned in each of the last 12 fire seasons. Nearly all of the homes and municipal buildings — including the post office and fire department — in the small town of Malden were burned to the ground.

In Oregon, the fires forced the evacuation of much of Medford, a city of more than 80,000 people about 30 miles north of the California border. Many more residents have been told to expect evacuations as the fires tear up homes and torch hundreds of thousands of acres in the state.

And residents in Southern California were nervously watching as the Bobcat Fire, which began burning Sunday in Angeles National Forest, less than 25 miles from Los Angeles, grew to 10,344 acres and remained fully uncontained. Strong winds are likely to continue to fuel that and other fires across the West.

Gusts could reach higher than 50 mph in Southern California, and although the worst of the winds in Oregon has passed, forecasters with the National Weather Service’s Portland office warned that “there is still plenty of wind to come.” To the north, much of the western part of Washington state was under a red flag warning Wednesday — meaning there are “hot, dry and unstable” fire conditions.


The sun rose, yet the sky stayed ominously dark in Northern California.

Hours after sunrise Wednesday residents of the San Francisco Bay Area waited for daylight. Instead they got only the faintest suggestion that somewhere above the smoky skies the sun had indeed risen.

Some called it a nuclear winter. Cars kept their headlights on. Office towers in San Francisco, where the smoke is mixing with fog, were illuminated as if in the middle of the night.

Across Northern California huge plumes of smoke from a fire that blasted through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada sent giant plumes of smoke high into the atmosphere, blotting out the sun.

The Bear Fire, as it is known, added to the smoke already pumped into the atmosphere by the more than 20 large fires burning across California.

Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said the massive volume of smoke from the Bear Fire rose up to 40,000 feet overnight.

“We have a huge cloud of ash and ice,” he said, adding that it resembled thunderstorm clouds.

Fires are essentially creating their own weather, Shoemaker said.

“Without the smoke it would be a clear day,” he said. “This is all generated from the fires.”


With winds patterns now changing the smoke will be pushed eastward, potentially clearing the air near the coasts, Shoemaker said. But there is a caveat.

Early in the week winds pushed smoke hundreds of miles into the Pacific Ocean. With wind patterns forecast to reverse, that old smoke will likely be pushed back inland.

Evacuations were ordered in Medford as Oregon faces dire fire conditions.

Wildfires fueled by hot, dry winds — making for what the Forest Service called “some of the worst fire conditions in the past century” — are burning across Oregon, causing widespread evacuations and possibly destroying entire communities.

The dangers prompted Gov. Kate Brown to declare emergencies for four different fires Tuesday, including the Almeda Fire in southwestern Oregon, which is encroaching on the city of Medford, home to about 80,000 people. Videos posted on social media showed flaming hillsides and clouds of smoke approaching the city’s neighborhoods.

“People’s homes, lives and land are at risk,” Brown said. “If you are in an evacuation area, please pay close attention and listen to local calls to evacuate as needed — this can save your life, your family and the lives of our firefighters.”

Mandatory evacuations were issued in a large section of Medford and remained in effect Wednesday. Roughly half of the city was under a level 2 evacuation order, meaning residents should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.

The nearby towns of Phoenix and Talent, each with around 7,000 people, were also ordered to evacuate and suffered severe damage overnight, said Mike Moran, a spokesman for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.


Moran, who has 40 years in local law enforcement, said he has never seen a fire threaten the area like this one, and with unusually hot temperatures and a red flag alert for strong winds in place through Wednesday afternoon, he expected things might still get worse.

“All these bad things combined to lead us to still have some concern that there could be additional flare-ups or extensions of the fire,” he said.

The area remains dangerous, and emergency responders do not know yet how many structures have been damaged.

“We are still encouraging people to stay out of burned areas because there are live power lines, gas leaks, the hazards from the burned areas,” he said. “So we are still in the middle of it.”

East of Eugene, the Holiday Farm Fire, which has burned through 32,000 acres, had already torched dozens of homes as of Tuesday, and officials said they expected more damage. Two communities, Blue River and Vida, accounting for about 150 homes, were called a “total loss” in a Tuesday email to Lane County employees, the Eugene Weekly reported.

Helicopter pilots say these rescue missions are the ‘toughest flying’ they have ever done.

The California National Guard is routinely called to help with search-and-rescue operations on land and at sea, but members of the Guard say they have seen nothing like this.


In a scene that played out multiple times over the weekend and into Tuesday afternoon, the National Guard airlifted hundreds of civilians out of the Sierra National Forest, their exits trapped by a dense ring of fire.

Pilots involved in the rescues said it was the most harrowing flying they have done in their careers. Crew members became nauseated from the smoke. They flew up a valley in strong winds, surpassing ridgelines illuminated by fire. They contemplated turning back.

As of noon Tuesday, 362 people and at least 16 dogs had been evacuated by air from burning forests of cedar and ponderosa pine. The Creek Fire, which ignited Friday evening, had burned 143,929 acres — five times the size of San Francisco — and was still raging out of control. It is one of more than 20 wildfires in California.

“Every piece of vegetation as far as you could see around that lake was on fire,” Chief Warrant Officer Kipp Goding, the pilot of a Blackhawk helicopter, said in a briefing.

“I’ve been flying for 25 years,” he said, removing a cloth mask to speak. “We get occasionally shot at overseas during missions. It’s definitely by far the toughest flying that I’ve ever done,” he said of the rescue missions in California.


Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Rosamond, the pilot of the Chinook, said in an interview Tuesday that as someone born and raised in the state, the fires were particularly affecting.

“It’s really sad that California has to go through all these disasters — it seems like one after another,” he said. Over the past four years, the state has suffered fires, flooding, mudslides and an earthquake on the edge of the desert.

“As a citizen of California it gets really draining,” he said.


A firefighter is in critical condition after a battle to save a fire station.

Three firefighters were injured and airlifted to a hospital while attempting to save their fire station from the encroaching Dolan Fire in Central California on Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service said.

The firefighters suffered from burns and smoke inhalation, the service said, and one was in critical condition.

Fourteen firefighters were at the Nacimiento Station in the Los Padres National Forest as the fire approached Tuesday morning, and they deployed portable fire shelters, which are usually used as a last resort when firefighters are trapped by blazes.

The Dolan Fire, which ignited Aug. 18, has burned 93,554 acres in the coastal mountains near Big Sur and was 20% contained as of Wednesday. It approximately doubled in size from Monday to Tuesday.

Winds are expected to exacerbate the blazes Wednesday, with gusts potentially exceeding 30 mph. Some evacuation orders are in effect for communities surrounding Highway 1.


There is a strong link between California’s wildfires and climate change, experts say.

While California’s climate has always made the state prone to fires, the link between human-caused climate change and bigger fires is inextricable, said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “This climate change connection is straightforward: Warmer temperatures dry out fuels,” he said. “In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark.

“In pretty much every single way, a perfect recipe for fire is just kind of written in California,” Williams said. “Nature creates the perfect conditions for fire, as long as people are there to start the fires. But then climate change, in a few different ways, seems to also load the dice toward more fire in the future.”

Even if the conditions are right for a wildfire, you still need something or someone to ignite it. Sometimes the trigger is nature, like the unusual lightning strikes that set off the LNU Lightning Complex fires in August, but more often than not humans are responsible, said Nina S. Oakley, a research scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Whether it is downed power lines or the fire ignited last weekend by smoke-generating fireworks as part of a gender-reveal party, humans tend to play a part — and not just in the initial trigger of a blaze, she said.

“You also have the human contribution to wildfire,” which includes the warming that has been caused by greenhouse gas emissions and the accompanying increased drying, as well as forest policies that involved suppressing fires instead of letting some burn, leaving fuel in place. Those factors, she said, are “contributing to creating a situation favorable to wildfire.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has often held up California as an example of the consequences of climate change, said Tuesday that he had “no patience for climate change deniers.”

“Never have I felt more of a sense of obligation and a sense of purpose to maintain California’s leadership not only nationally but internationally to face climate change head on,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.