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Orange skies across California as wildfire smoke blankets state

Real-time air quality report

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Awakening to an otherworldly sky overloaded with smoke from wildfires hundreds of miles away, Bay Area residents experienced a day like no other Wednesday as even mild-mannered weather scientists pronounced the conditions “unprecedented,” scrambling their forecasts in unforeseen ways.

As an army of 14,000 firefighters battled 28 major wildfires in the state, the National Weather Service reported a record pileup of smoke in the atmosphere and tweeted a satellite image of the gray pall blanketing much of California and extending far out over the Pacific Ocean.

In Sonoma County, residents marveled at the eerie yellow-to-orange shades in the sky, captured by cellphone shots and mountaintop fire cameras placed throughout the North Bay.

Matt Everson, a lifelong Santa Rosan, said his phone camera failed to capture the moment.

“I’ve never seen a sky like this before,” he said. “While it doesn’t really smell as smoky as it looks, it does make me think of every post-apocalyptic novel I have ever read.“

As the day dawned, dull and dark under the smoke, meteorologists based in Monterey worked with a “heightened sense of urgency,” forecaster Roger Gass said, acknowledging the output from wildfires was so thick above the region that their initial forecast, which called for an 80-degree day in Santa Rosa, was well off by as much as 20 degrees.

“It’s something you call a busted forecast,” he said.

Gass said the unnatural colors, a result of smoke particles scattering blue light, prompted people to fear a wildfire was close at hand. Fires have been burning throughout the region since last month, but the biggest new blazes are in the Sierra Nevada and its foothills, including a monster blaze that exploded overnight near Lake Oroville.

The blood-red sky that took shape through mid-morning was unsettling for millions of Californians. Sebastopol resident Anne Belden was among those who took to Twitter to share her reaction.

“It looks like the sun didn’t shine today,” said Belden, a journalism instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College. At late morning, her house was dark as night when she turned off the lights.

“I’d like to invite the 3% of scientists who don’t believe climate change is human-made to have lunch on my deck in Sonoma County today,” she wrote in her Twitter post.

Meteorologists said most of the smoke over the Bay Area was suspended from 2,000 to 5,000 feet up, resting atop the coastal fog belt in the first 1,000 feet.

At the Sonoma County airport, manager Jon Stout said the smoke layer was solid to about 1,100 feet above ground, forcing pilots to take off and land using instruments.

Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist, tweeted that intense fire updrafts had injected smoke and ash as high as 50,000 feet, far above the cruising altitude of airliners and contributing to smoke that is “blocking nearly all sunlight at (the) surface.”

The “creepy, eerie” sky colors seen Wednesday are caused by particles in the smoke that scatter blue light, allowing yellow, orange and red light to reach human eyes, said Kristine Roselius, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

The district continued to set a record, marking a 23rd straight Spare the Air Day on Wednesday, with an extension to the 25th straight day set for Friday.

Much of the Bay Area’s smoke is coming from the 422,000-acre August Complex fires spanning five counties in the Mendocino National Forest and the 254,000-acre North Complex fires in Plumas and Butte counties, Roselius said.

Multiple fires in Oregon were generating smoke that was being blown out over the ocean but could reach the Bay Area, she said.

The district listed North Bay air quality as moderate Wednesday afternoon, but expected it it to worsen to unhealthy for children, seniors and people with diabetes, heart and lung disease, considered sensitive groups.

The Fire and Smoke Map posted by AirNow, a coalition of federal, state and local air quality agencies, showed most of Sonoma County with moderate air quality.

A permanent monitoring station in Ukiah registered unhealthy air for sensitive groups and three low-cost sensors at the south end of Clear Lake had unhealthy air, while two sensors at Willits recorded very unhealthy air, the worst rating.

The blanket of smoke nestled Wednesday morning above the natural layer of morning fog confounded the National Weather Service’s forecasting models.

Meteorologist Drew Peterson said the problem was “weather models don’t include smoke” and smoke blocks sunlight that would ordinarily dissipate the fog and allow the temperature to rise.

At one point mid-morning, the service tweeted that it was reliant on real-time reports from weather watchers to help monitor current conditions.

“This is beyond the scope of our models so we rely on your reports!” read the post from the Monterey office.

Gass said the agency has radar, satellites and mounds of data to develop forecasts “but the ground truth is really important to us.”

The region has been buffeted by worse air pollution, like the dark skies during the 2017 North Bay wildfires, when conditions were likened to Beijing, China, or the smoky fallout from the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County. But the current pollution is unique in the expanse of smoke and the distance it has traveled, he said.

Sonoma County caught a break Wednesday as the persistent fog prevented people from smelling the mass of smoke above it, Roselius said. Harmful and less detectable particulate pollution can still exist in such conditions, however.

“If you smell smoke, that’s the time to head indoors,” she said.

Foul air will continue “for the foreseeable future” with large fires burning to the north, south and east of the North Bay, according to a report Wednesday from the U.S. Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program.

Allo Gilinsky of Sebastopol, who recently landed a job in Boston, said he was relieved to be moving there next week.

An evacuee during the Kincade fire last year, Gilinksy said asthma obliges him to stay inside most of the day when the air turns bad.

“As much as I love California, I don’t know if it’s where I want to be any more,” he said.

Staff writer Lori A. Carter contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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