‘Like a scene from Mars’: Terrifying pictures show California turning orange as wildfires rage on

Winds stoked unprecedented number of fires across California in recent days that have forced rescues and evacuations

Louise Boyle
New York
Wednesday 09 September 2020 23:50
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Wildfires in California

This was the frightening view from San Francisco on Wednesday as the day broke to a glowing orange sky.

Winds have stoked an unprecedented number of fires, driven by the climate crisis, across California in recent days that have forced rescues and thousands of residents to evacuate.

Further north in Washington state, more acres burned in a single day than firefighters usually see all year. Fires also forced people to flee in Oregon and Idaho.

A massive cloud of smoke covered much of California on Wednesday, dimming the sun to an eerie orange glow over San Francisco.

“I keep thinking these scenes are from Blade Runner,” tweeted San Francisco resident Tracy Chou.

“I have never seen the sky in SF look like this in the nearly 20 years I’ve lived here. This video doesn’t do it justice; looks like a scene from Mars,” another local, Veronica Belmont, posted on Twitter.

A number of recent studies, including reports by federal Environmental Protection Agency have linked bigger wildfires to the climate crisis.

“The frequency of extreme wild fire weather has doubled in California over the past four decades, with the main driver being the effect of rising temperature on dry fuels, meaning that the fuel loads are now frequently at record or near-record levels when ignition occurs and when strong winds blow,” Stanford University climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh told the Associated Press.

About 125 miles (200 km) to the northeast, winds fanned a huge fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills and forced authorities to order early morning evacuations and put other residents on high alert.

The area is not far from Paradise, where 85 people were killed by a fire which decimated the town in 2018, and Oroville Dam, where failing spillways forced a massive evacuation in 2017.

On Tuesday, flames overtook 14 firefighters who had to deploy last-resort emergency shelters and destroyed a fire station in Los Padres National Forest on California’s central coast. 

They suffered burns and smoke inhalation, and three were flown to a hospital in Fresno, the US Forest Service said.

Chris Barth, a spokesman on the Dolan Fire, said the three hospitalized firefighters were stabilized, with one in critical and the other two in fair condition. Barth said the firefighters’ training and equipment had prevented a worse disaster.

Helicopters have been used in recent days to rescue hundreds of people stranded in the burning Sierra National Forest, where a fire has destroyed 365 buildings, including at least 45 homes. 

About 5,000 buildings were threatened, fire officials said.

Further south, fires burned in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. People in foothill communities east of Los Angeles were warned to be ready to flee, but the region’s notorious Santa Ana winds were weaker than predicted.

“We’re encouraged that the wind activity appears to be dying down,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said. “The rest of the week looks a little more favourable.”

Cars drive along the San Francisco Bay Bridge under an orange smoke filled sky

After closing eight national forests in the southern half of the state earlier in the week, the US Forest Service closed California’s 10 other national forests, citing “unprecedented and historic fire conditions throughout the state.”

California has set a record with nearly 2.3 million acres burned already this year, and historically the worst of the wildfire season doesn’t begin until fall.

Pacific Gas & Electric was deploying more than 3,000 employees on Wednesday to inspect power lines before restoring energy to about 167,000 customers whose electricity was turned off to prevent fires from being started by wind-damaged wires. Some aerial inspections were paused because of smoke limiting visibility, said spokesman Jeff Smith.

Only a very small number of customers had power turned off in Southern California.

In the Sierra National Forest east of Fresno, dozens of campers and hikers were stranded at the Vermilion Valley Resort after the only road in — a narrow route snaking along a steep cliff — was closed Sunday because of the so-called Creek Fire.

“This is emblematic of how fast that fire was moving, plus the physical geography of that environment with one road in and one road out,” said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, said of the helicopter rescues. “Unless you wanted an absolute human disaster, you had to move fast.”

Wires contributed to this report

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