'Like a scene from Mars': Skies in parts of California turn orange as wildfires rage

Large areas of California have burned for weeks as fires consumed 2.3 million acres, or 20 times what burned all of last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said.
By David Ingram and Mohammed Syed

SAN FRANCISCO — Parts of the West Coast woke up Wednesday to orange skies, an ominous effect of rapidly spreading wildfires that have destroyed homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate in California, Oregon and Washington.

In the Bay Area, no sunrise was visible as a mix of fog and smoke from weeks of fires enveloped towns and cities in a haze that resembled perpetual predawn light.

“It is still dark as though it’s 6 a.m., but it’s already 8, which is weird in itself,” said Kim Hart, 48, who lives in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood.

Cars kept their headlights on as drivers crept through sepia-toned streets, and the city sent a text alert warning of “widespread haze” and “darker skies” throughout the area. On social media, people drew comparisons to end-of-days movies, and regional webcams that typically would show views from area peaks instead displayed glowing orange skies.

“It feels creepy. The air has a strange smell, although not a smell of wildfire as you would expect,” Hart said.

People stop at Fort Point to take morning pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge covered in smoke from wildfires in San Francisco on Wednesday.Eric Risberg / AP
Downtown San Francisco under an orange sky darkened by smoke from California wildfires Wednesday.Stephen Lam / Reuters

At about 11 a.m., the sky around San Francisco appeared to have gotten darker, and the sun still was not visible behind the smoke.

Large areas of California have burned for weeks as fires consumed 2.3 million acres, or 20 times what burned all of last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday. In Washington state, wildfires virtually wiped out an entire small town Tuesday. In Oregon, thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes Wednesday after fires broke out across the state, The Oregonian reported.

Smoke-filled skies added to the fear and tension even for residents whose homes aren’t immediately threatened. Some said it looked like another planet; others like nuclear winter.

A satellite image of smoke from California wildfires on Wednesday.NOAA

Much of the West Coast is choking on a thick veil of smoke as historic wildfires rage across the region. Images captured Wednesday from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-17 satellite demonstrate just how widespread the smoke has become. The images, processed by the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University, show much of California and western Oregon shrouded in intense, billowing smoke.

“This morning I woke up at 7 a.m. and thought my alarm was wrong because it was so dark,” said Kelly Groth, who lives in San Francisco. “I didn’t smell smoke but had a feeling the fires were affecting the atmosphere. I pulled back my curtains to see the sky was dark orange, and it felt so apocalyptic. I’ve lived in the Bay Area my whole life and never seen anything like it.”

Visitors are seen in Dolores Park under an orange sky darkened by smoke from California wildfires in San Francisco on Sept. 9, 2020.Stephen Lam / Reuters

The National Weather Service warned that the situation could worsen throughout the day Wednesday as additional smoke particles fall from higher in the atmosphere.

“Suspended smoke will descend closer to the surface and could lead to darker skies and worsening air quality today. This is beyond the scope of our models so we rely on your reports!” the service’s Bay Area division tweeted.

Area air monitors reported moderate-quality air, but the weather service warned that those readings may be incomplete because they measure smaller particulates in the air. Some ash falling is too large for them to register, it said.

A social distancing sign in San Francisco on Wednesday.David Agranovich / via Twitter
A view of San Francisco on Wednesday.David Ingram / NBC News

Long-time residents wondered whether the haze might become a regular part of living on the West Coast, as climate change adds to the potential ferocity of the annual wildfire season.

“I have never seen the sky in SF look like this in the nearly 20 years I’ve lived here,” Veronica Belmont of San Francisco wrote on Twitter. “Looks like a scene from Mars.”

Denise Chow contributed.