The skies in Plumas County and other parts of Northern California have taken on an eerie orange glow as smoke from the Dixie fire blots out the sun and sends air quality levels plummeting.
The fire — now the 14th largest in California’s recorded history — was at 208,206 acres Tuesday and only 23% contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
Wildfire photographer Josh Edelson captured the Martian pall in the Plumas County towns of Greenville and Twain over the weekend and said it was the darkest smoke-tainted sky he’d ever seen.
“Up until this point, the darkest I’ve ever seen the sky was probably during the Camp fire in Paradise, and this was one even darker,” Edelson said. “It was hard to even capture in a photo. At four in the afternoon, it was like it was midnight.”
Edelson described ash flakes the size of dimes, and a smoke smell so powerful it was “like sticking your head right into a campfire.”
National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Kurth in Sacramento explained that smoke particles from the fire scatter blue light, “leaving the orange and the red behind.”
“It’s something we see every year, but with bigger fires and more smoke, it’s more widespread,” he said, noting that mountainous inland terrain can also capture the smoke and make it linger.
“You can look at the sun quite a bit, it blocks so much of it out,” he said.
Fire officials said large pyrocumulonimbus clouds hovering over the fire only deepen that shroud.
The surrounding regions are now dealing with some of the worst air quality in the nation.
The Lake Almanor area by the fire’s northern edge saw air quality readings as high as 466 on Tuesday morning — near the very worst end of the scale — according to Environmental Protection Agency air monitoring site AirNow.gov.
Residents in large portions of Butte and Plumas counties have been ordered to evacuate, but as the photographs show, not everyone has heeded the advisory.
Some stayed out of stubbornness, Edelson said; others out of a desire to protect their homes and communities for fear that no one else would.
One Twain resident stopped to deliver supplies to her neighbor before heading to her home even deeper in the fire zone, Edelson said.
She told him, “if we’re going to go out, we’re going to go out swinging.”
The Butte County Air Quality Management District and the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District both issued air quality advisories, warning that exposure to fine particulates from the smoke can pose serious health risks, especially for people with heart and lung conditions, as well as for children and the elderly.
Air quality experts have said residents in areas exposed to wildfire smoke should stay indoors with doors and windows closed, and wear masks any time they have to go outside.
“These particles make it all the way down into the air sacs of the lung, and then there’s even smaller particles within that even can cross into the bloodstream,” John Balmes, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, said recently. “It’s the really fine particles that are the ones that cause the most health risk.”
During a Dixie fire incident update Monday evening, Chief Nick Truax said many residents have inquired about all the smoke billowing up from the massive fire.
“It’s definitely a health concern,” Truax said. “If you’re able to leave the area while it’s that smoky, that would probably be a good thing.”
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