Why Is the Sky Orange in California?

Dear Rich Lifer,

Pictures of the California skyline, so orange they appear photoshopped, have permeated the daily news.

The Golden Gate Bridge looms behind a glowing orange haze. Drivers keep their headlines on in the daylight. No sounds of birds chirping or children playing outside are heard.

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Source: The Indian Express

The apocalyptic skies were darkened by noon in San Francisco last Wednesday.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, tweeted, “Extremely dense & tall smoke plumes from numerous large wildfires…are almost completely blocking out the sun across some portions of Northern California.”

According to the Bay Area Air District, the region’s air pollution control agency, the orange skies around San Francisco, and in much of Oregon and Washington, are the result of ash and smoke from fires rising and spreading widely due to strong winds.

The smoke particles tend to scatter blue light from the sun, while allowing “yellow-orange-red light to reach the surface, causing skies to look orange,” the agency Tweeted.

Today we will break down what you need to know about these devastating fires.

How Did the Wildfires Start?

Most Californian wildfires are started by people. The most recent El Dorado Fire, which has spread over 10,000 acres, was started by a family using “a pyrotechnic device” to announce the gender of a new baby.

Other fires have been started by power transmission lines or other utility equipment, which may spark fires in more remote areas. For example, Pacific Gas and Electric equipment caused the fatal Camp Fire in 2018.

Of course, natural phenomena can also take some blame. This year, unusually dry lightning storms resulted in some of the biggest fires.

Uncontrollable, high winds then often blow the fires up and down the coast causing a path of destruction.

The Role of Climate Change

According to experts, climate change is driving the intensity of the fires — how big they get, how rapidly they spread, and how difficult it is to fight them as they destroy communities.

Record heat waves, which scientists report are due to extreme swings between hot and dry weather and periods of heavy rain, have exacerbated the fires. The heavy rains have spurred the growth of plants which are more likely to catch on fire when the weather becomes hot and dry.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California has emphasized the ties between climate change and the severity of this year’s fires stating, “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.”

For these reasons, along with many others, we are seeing the worst wildfire season on record.

Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, reported on Wednesday that more than 14,000 firefighters were battling 28 major fires across the state and that more than 2.5 million acres have burned this year, far surpassing any previous record in the state’s history.

This time last year, California saw 4,927 fires that burned 118,000 acres, according to the governor. In 2020, there have been 7,606 blazes so far.

On top of all this, it is still early in the wildfire season, which scientists warn is just stretching longer and longer each year.

Air Quality Index

For residents up and down the west coast who are lucky enough to be out of the direct path of the fire, the issue of air quality still looms.

Currently, air quality remains moderate to hazardous across all major cities on the West Coast.

A great resource to check is AirNow, a website and app run by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Long story short, the higher the index, the worse the air. Anything above 100 is bad for sensitive groups — which includes even more people than usual, because of the pandemic.

Experts are reporting that poor air quality could worsen Covid-19 symptoms or make people cough more, thus, making them more contagious if they are infected.

The best thing to do in areas with poor air quality is to stay indoors with the windows shut.

Economic Impact

The economic impacts of fires in California are severe, potentially long-lasting, and require immediate addressing to prevent their consequences from hampering long-term growth.

While it’s too soon to put an exact number on the damage from this year’s fires, one can easily look at the devastation from fires in 2019 for context.

The Kincade Fire, the largest California fire of 2019, destroyed 374 structures, threatened over 90,000, scorched 120 square miles, and forced more than 200,000 individuals to evacuate.

Because of the fires, California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E), mandated power outages, which cut power to 43 counties of Northern and Central California.

This resulted in the forced closure of schools, businesses, restaurants, grocery stores, and hospitals.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, economists predicted the power cuts could cost residential customers $65 million. When accounting for small commercial and industrial customers, the cost could increase to $2.5 billion.

Moody’s Analytics reported that the total lost economic output could be estimated at $500 million.

California only allocates a certain amount of emergency wildlife funds each year. In 2018, the state went through all the funds for the fiscal year in only two months.

This raises the question: will the increasing costs associated with wildfires be sustainable for the California budget?

With the raging wildfires only worsening as the years go on, the economic and environmental toll could soon prove to be too much to bear.

How to Stop The Fires

In California alone, five of the largest wildfires on record have started in the last four years.

Experts say that these startling facts must serve as a wakeup call for the nation to adopt more policies to protect lives and property.

David McWethy, a fire scientist at Montana State University, states, “The first step is to acknowledge that fire is inevitable, and we have to learn to live with it.”

A century of federal policy to aggressively extinguish all wildfires, rather than letting some burn at low levels, has now been judged as misguided and has left forests with a plethora of fuel for increasingly devastating blazes.

Even where progressive developments are happening — such as imposing tougher regulations on homes built in fire-prone areas and prescribing fires to scour away excess vegetation — critics say changes are happening too slowly.

If you want to help assist those affected by these devastating fires, consider making a donation of time or money to The Red Cross, which is working in all three states providing meals, health services, comfort and other support for affected residents.

To a Richer Life,

The Rich Life Roadmap Team

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