For millions of people living in California and Oregon, Sept. 9 was the day the sun didn’t rise.
Smoke from a record-breaking spate of wildfires burning across the West shrouded the sky, obliterating some familiar landmarks and casting others in a dim, eerie orange-yellow glow.
In the foothills and mountains from Washington state to nearly the Mexican border, firefighters continued their desperate battle to contain the flames and rescue people trapped behind fire lines or, as in the case of Medford, Oregon, or Oroville, California, to help evacuate cities and towns.
In California, at least 32 major fires were burning as of Wednesday afternoon and more than 64,000 people were under an evacuation order. As of Wednesday, CalFire was reporting seven confirmed deaths as a result of the blazes. Officials warned that the death toll would likely climb.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, many awoke in the dim light Wednesday to a sense that the apocalypse had arrived.
“I guess we don't do dawn anymore in California,” quipped the writer Andrew Leonard, who normally covers technology but has a newsletter devoted to globalization and Sichuan food.
From Berkeley and Oakland to Oregon’s capital city of Salem nearly 600 miles away, people looked at their clocks and blinked in confusion. The time said 8 a.m. — but where was the sun?
Things got eerier still across much of Northern California as the sky appeared to grow darker as the day went on.
The Bay Area Air Quality District posted an explanatory tweet: “These smoke particles scatter blue light & only allow yellow-orange-red light to reach the surface, causing skies to look orange. If smoke becomes too thick in a certain area, most of the light will be scattered & absorbed before reaching the surface, which may cause dark skies.”
Jessica Christian, a photographer at the San Francisco Chronicle, tweeted that the strange phenomenon appeared to be bringing people together. “People really don’t know what to do right now,” she wrote. “Everyone on the Embarcadero is stopping to record the sky and chit chatting in a way I haven’t seen since pre-pandemic.”
But people were also scared. Was it safe to go out? Was it safe to breathe? Would the situation grow worse as the fires continued to burn? It was only September, after all, and California’s peak fire season doesn’t typically get going until October, when hot winds fan flames and carry burning embers, spreading fires like, well, wildfire.
“How it feels, it’s just the vulnerability of it,” said Nathan Landers, who lives in Oakland and works for an energy efficiency company. “You have all this information — fire maps online, constant updates on social media. You can get all this information, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Like many in California, Landers said he has been through this before. His hometown of Healdsburg in Sonoma County has been ravaged by fire and evacuation orders each year since 2017.
And yet, Landers noted, while it was familiar, it was not normal. “This isn’t something I grew up with,” he said. “Nobody had wildfire stories. Nobody had wildfire protocol. And now it fires every year.”
The science backs Landers up. Since the early 1970s, the annual area burned in California fires has increased fivefold, driven by a warming and drying trend exacerbated by climate change. After decades of fire suppression, the state’s forests are also much denser than they would naturally be and contain some 150 million dead trees killed by the drought of the 2010s.
That was the tinderbox that has ignited in the past few weeks as freak “dry lightning” storms set off hundreds of blazes made stronger by a record heatwave touching much of the West.
To date, more than 2.2 million acres have burned in California this year, easily breaking 2018’s record of more than 1.9 million acres — and there are still two months left in the fire season. That record was set after 2018's Camp fire, destroying the town of Paradise, killing 85 people, and displacing some 50,000 others. Now, this season's wildfires have triggered yet another evacuation in the still-ravaged Northern California town.
For the moment, Southern California, known for its apocalyptic firestorms, has seemed somewhat spared by comparison. True, there are several dangerous fires burning in the region, including the Bobcat fire in the Angeles National Forest that had residents in Pasadena, Arcadia, and other foothill suburbs under evacuation warnings, as well as a fire in San Bernardino County sparked by a pyrotechnic display for a gender-reveal party. But in northwest Pasadena near the Rose Bowl, there was only a slight haze, more akin to a bad smog day in the LA Basin.
In San Francisco, on the other hand, people went jogging in N95 masks.
Paradoxically, despite the dire visuals, the air in many parts of California was actually less toxic than it had been in days before. That’s because the smoke drifting over the Bay Area and parts of the Sacramento Valley came from fires further away, and stayed in the upper atmosphere.
“There’s little pollution, just some ash,” noted Tobie Shapiro of Berkeley. “It simply happens to be blotting out the sky.”
In California, more than 200 people were extracted by the National Guard in Chinook helicopters from a wall of flames in the Sierra Nevada mountains east of Fresno. Thousands more hikers and campers were ordered to leave the forests.
Campers woke up Monday to find ash had blanketed them like snow. Cars piled with bicycles and luggage wound their way in traffic out of the mountains beneath a sky darkening with smoke. Then, suddenly, the sky turned bright orange.
Officials said at least four people had died in fires in the Pacific Northwest this week — two each in Oregon and Washington. The town of Blue River was nearly completely overrun by flames from the Holiday Farm Fire, and authorities said they feared the death toll would rise significantly.
Jack Wills, a novelist and retired psychologist who lives in the McKenzie River Valley east of Eugene, Oregon, said he received a warning to evacuate about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, followed by an urgent order to get out immediately at 1:30 a.m., a message delivered by emergency vehicles shouting from megaphones along Highway 126.
He spent the night in a WinCo parking lot in the town of Springfield and then moved to a Holiday Inn, where he spent Wednesday desperately seeking information about the fate of his home.
He saw posts begging for information about loved ones who hadn’t been heard from since the flames ripped through. But definitive information was hard to come by.
“The emotional swing has been from wishful thinking…to despair,” he said. “I’m back to cautiously hopeful, but there’s a lot of uncertainty, and it’s horrifying what has happened to the valley.” His voice broke, and he trailed off. “Excuse me, I’m feeling a little emotional. The valley. It’s like a sanctuary, a beautiful, beautiful place. … It’s a catastrophe.”
BuzzFeed News writers Ken Bensinger, Peter Aldhous, Brianna Sacks, John Paczkowski, Caroline O’Donovan, Scott Lucas, Salvador Hernandez, Jason Wells, Olivia Niland, Christopher Miller, and Hamed Aleaziz contributed to this report.