This year’s wildfires have created eerie, apocalyptic red and orange skies all over the West
It’s wildfire season in the U.S. once again, and like every year in recent memory, it’s a bad one. Record-breaking fires are burning across a number of western states, forcing evacuations as homes are threatened, and creating hazardous air quality from all the smoke and ash. Parts of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona and Utah are currently under dangerous and critical risk of fire weather, according to the National Weather Service. Firefighters are working around the clock to beat back unprecedented blazes. And amid it all, people in western coastal states woke up this week to eerie, apocalyptic red skies caused by the smoke from nearby fires.
Oregon, Washington, and California are some of the states that have been hardest hit during this year’s unprecedented and brutal wildfire season. Oregon Governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency on Tuesday and ordered evacuations from many different parts of the state. Washington Governor Jay Inslee said that on Labor Day alone, more acres burned “than in 12 of the last entire fire seasons in the state of Washington.” Most of California is under what the state calls a Red Flag Warning, and the state, which is hit hard by wildfires every year, just surpassed its own fire season record.
For those who have never lived in a Western state during fire season, it can be hard to conceptualize the terror and how brutally wildfires sweep through regions and towns, destroying everything in their path. The photos that many people have been sharing from places like the Bay Area, showing well-known landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge against a backdrop of eerie, darkened red skies, might help with that.
According to NASA, wildfires change the color of the sky due to their smoke particles, which block certain light wavelengths from getting through.
“The smoke particles from the fires allow sunlight’s longer wavelength colors like red and orange to get through while blocking the shorter wavelengths of yellow, blue and green,” NASA said. “Those longer wavelengths give the sky a red or orange tinted appearance. Similarly, during sunrise and sunset times when the sun is near the horizon, sunlight has to travel through more of Earth’s atmosphere to get to you. The additional atmosphere filters out the shorter wavelengths and allows the longer wavelengths to get through, providing reds and oranges during those times.”
But knowing what causes the red and orange skies doesn’t make them less terrifying. And until we address the root cause of our continually worsening fire seasons — climate change — we can expect these apocalyptic scenes to become the norm during late summer and fall.