Essential California: Life on Mars?

Cars drive along the San Francisco Bay Bridge under an orange smoke-filled sky
Cars drive along the San Francisco Bay Bridge under an orange smoke-filled sky on Wednesday.

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Sept. 10, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

There are few constants on this strange planet, but typically one can at least count on the sun always rising.

But on Wednesday morning, after days of wildfires, millions of Californians awoke to surreal orange skies and twilight-like darkness.

Technically speaking, the sun did still rise, as 2020 has yet to prevent Earth from turning on its axis. But the smoke was so thick that it all but blotted out the sun in San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area.


[See the photos: “Surreal orange skies as wildfire smoke blocks sun in Bay Area” in the Los Angeles Times]

“It’s after 9AM and there’s still no sign of the sun,” California Highway Patrol’s Golden Gate Division tweeted, attaching a photo that looked like the San Francisco Bay transposed over the red planet of Mars. The internet leaped to dystopian comparisons, invoking everything from “Blade Runner” to “Dune,” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional world of Mordor.

Ash-covered cars turned on their headlights. Passersby stood on the Embarcadero and outside Mission Dolores, snapping cellphone photos as streetlights glowed. “Ace’s will be closed today due to the apocalypse,” a local sports bar told customers on Instagram.

[Read the story: “Deep orange skies, ‘snowing’ ash as fire smoke swamps Bay Area” in the Los Angeles Times]

Four-year-old Tilly Gorback noticed the orange sky as soon as she woke up in Orinda. She immediately started asking questions, trying to assess whether she was in danger. After checking the air quality index, her parents Dan and Gennie Gorback suggested taking a family walk outside to help their daughter feel a little safer. The family headed out at 10 a.m., with Tilly and her toddler sister Cece each holding their own flashlights under what their mother called the “pumpkin sky.”

[See also: “Talking to Kids About the Dark Sky” from SF72]

The sun-smothering haze didn’t originate from any one fire; it’s the result of myriad fires burning across Northern California and the Sierra Nevada, creating what the National Weather Service termed an “unprecedented amount of smoke in the atmosphere.”

As Bay Area Air Quality District meteorologist Jarrett Claiborne explained, visible light is a combination of the colors in the rainbow, from red to violet. Tiny particles of ash and smoke can act as filters that “scatter” certain colors out. These smoke particles are filtering out blue light and only allowing the red-orange-yellow light to reach the surface.

Despite the omnipresent smoke and apocalyptic skies, air quality conditions in the Bay Area remained moderate throughout the day because of the marine layer keeping the smoke elevated. But when that suspended smoke descends closer to the surface of the Earth, it could make skies even darker and worsen air quality, according to the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.

As my colleagues Susanne Rust and Tony Barboza report, the smoke blanketing the West Coast — combined with soot and smoke from more localized fires — is creating serious air quality issues for millions of Californians. “What’s notable is that it’s everywhere,” Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis, told them. “So no matter which way the wind blows you’re getting hit by smoke and ash. It’s pretty brutal.”

[Read the story: “Rarely have so many Californians been exposed to such gloomy, unhealthy air” in the Los Angeles Times]

The fires themselves continued to worsen on Wednesday. More than two dozen blazes forced thousands of residents from their homes amid growing alarm about a new monster fire that rapidly consumed more than 250,000 acres around Oroville and killed at least three people.

More on the fires:

  • Explosive fire again threatens Paradise, a town devastated by the 2018 Camp fire. Los Angeles Times
  • Fears of a significant spread of the Bobcat fire dissipated Tuesday night as Santa Ana winds failed to materialize. But residents of nearby foothill communities remain on high alert, and several evacuation warnings are still in place. Los Angeles Times
  • “Ground zero” for dead trees: How a California mega-drought turned the Creek fire in the southern Sierra Nevada into an inferno. Fresno Bee
  • Ready for an evacuation? Here’s what to pack. Los Angeles Times

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.


A majority of Los Angeles households face serious financial problems due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Latinos and Black residents bearing the brunt of the economic toll. Los Angeles Times

L.A. County walks back its Halloween ban. But trick-or-treating is still “not recommended.” Los Angeles Times

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President Trump said in a taped interview that he deliberately downplayed the danger of the coronavirus in public early this year despite knowing it posed a deadly threat to Americans, a revelation that sent shock waves Wednesday through a presidential campaign entering the home stretch. Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board is endorsing Joe Biden. Here’s what they have to say about their choice. (A quick reminder that the editorial pages operate independently from the newsroom.) Los Angeles Times

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a trio of laws on Wednesday intended to bolster struggling small businesses in California and encourage their owners to hire more workers. Each bill received bipartisan support but only light scrutiny by the Legislature before its adjournment last week. Los Angeles Times

California hit its highest voter registration rate since 1940. The influx of registrations means that a record high of 21 million Californians — or 83% of eligible voters — are now registered. Sacramento Bee

Two months before California voters decide whether to allow affirmative action again, debate is heating up over how the 24-year state ban on it has affected Black and Latino students at the University of California. Los Angeles Times


Placer County’s public health officer resigned Tuesday in protest over the decision that same day by the county Board of Supervisors to declare that the county no longer recognizes COVID-19 as an emergency. Sacramento Bee

Earth’s warming is closing in on a crucial limit, a U.N. report says. In the next five years, the planet has nearly a 1-in-4 chance of experiencing a year that’s hot enough to put the global temperature at 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.5 degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial times. Los Angeles Times


The latest school hurdle: Distance learning without power in Sonoma County. Santa Rosa Press Democrat

In Point Reyes, all ears are tuned to local radio. Public radio station KWMR has been a beacon amid the fog of fire. Los Angeles Times

Amanda Eichstaedt, the general manager at public radio station KWMR
Amanda Eichstaedt, the general manager at public radio station KWMR in Pt. Reyes Station on the Marin coast. When the pandemic hit, she was one of the few staffers to keep the station up and running.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Promotoras work to reach the most vulnerable to COVID-19 among San Diego Latinos and other diverse communities. SDSU’s School of Public Health has a team of 35 promotoras who speak various languages, such as Spanish, Arabic and Tagalog. San Diego Union-Tribune

What happened on Howard Street? Racial politics, family and a fight for justice in a rough corner of Eureka. North Coast Journal

“It’s one of the best private book collections in California history.” Rare books and firsthand accounts of California history will be sold Sept. 16 as part of an online auction of property from the estate of newspaper executive C.K. McClatchy. Sacramento Bee

A poem to start your Thursday: “Carmel Point” by Robinson Jeffers.

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Los Angeles: sunny, 84. San Diego: sunny, 84. San Francisco: partly sunny, 69. San Jose: sunny, 80. Fresno: sunny, 94. Sacramento: sunny, 91. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Barbara Giasone:

My grandparents, who had farmed in South Dakota since 1915, never had a vacation until they sold their property in 1948. Their dream was to escape the harsh winter, and visit us in the California sunshine. They arrived at our Glendale home on New Year’s Day 1949, eager to explore our warm “paradise.” On Jan. 10, we awoke to find snow covering the front and back lawns. At age eight, I was so excited when Grandpa helped me build a three-foot snowman. The rare snowstorm lasted three days with uncommonly low temperatures. What timing for our Midwest guests!

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.