Angelika One night in mid August this year, we woke up to rolling thunder and intensly bright lightning. Thunderstorms are extremely rare in the San Franciso Bay Area, I can count the occations on the fingers of one hand since we moved here 20 years ago. Also, they don't happen in combination with rain, which is concerning in a region without any precipitation all summer long. Vegetation becomes bone dry only a few months into summer, and if lightning strikes, there's a high likelihood of a devastating wild fire to start. And indeed, a few days later, forest fires in many regions in California were all over the news.
Last Wednesday (9/9/2020) we woke up and thought we were on a different planet. Everything outside was cast in red-orange light, and no sun anywhere. It was so dark outside that we had to keep the indoor lights on the entire day. We lost track of the time of day. "Apocalyptic" is probaby the best way to describe the scenery. Meteorologists tried to calm down the population, and explained that the phenomenon occurs when smoke particles are floating upwards into higher regions of the atmosphere, breaking the sunlight before it reaches the surface, creating a red-orange tint, similar to what happens during a sunset. But, believe me, I've seen many sunset, and none of them looked even close to what happened here on Wednesday. Surprisingly, the air didn't smell smokey at all that day, apparently the particles were indeed high up there without floating down. However, I noticed that it was raining ashes from the sky, and when I got out on the balcony to take a few photos, I noticed some particles on my t-shirt. Now the news is that not only California is affected by the wildfires, but increasingly the States further north, Oregon and Washington.
So far, a total of 560 wild fires have been registered across California. Here in the city of San Francisco, we don't have any fires, luckily, but there are quite a few raging forest fires in the surrounding areas. The fires have been going on in Point Reyes, Santa Cruz, and in the Wine Country. Although large area wild fires have been a common occurrance in California for many years now, their impact is more severe under Covid conditions. Mass evacuations and fighting fires while practicing social distancing are new challenges. Also, this year, the fires came earlier than in the past, the usual fire season starts in October. We should have known it, nothing is like it was in 2020!
The surrounding fires impacted San Francisco's air quality severely for several weeks. Often, we woke up, looking at downtown through thick layer of haze, inhaling bad air that smelled like an extinguished camp fire, irrating our sinuses. Around four a clock in the afternoon, city air quality often got slightly better due to the the upcoming winds. Which is when we opened all doors and windows, which we had kept tighly closed until this point, to lock out hot air and smoky smells. To exactly hit the proper point in time, we ran hourly spot checks on our balcony, and also monitored airquality sites on the Internet, which constantly measured air quality and counted unhealthy floating particles, publishing the results for different cities and counties.
The categories are: good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups (people with pre-existing conditions like asthma), unhealthy, very unhealthy, hazardous. We'll go out for a walk when we sense the air doesn't smell like a hundred full ash trays, or when the quality index is "moderate" or better. We always put on our Corona-defying cloth masks, but ironically they're utterly useless against the smoke particles. To filter these out, we'd need N95 masks, but those are better left to medical staff and shouldn't be bought off the market. A catch-22, no doubt. I found it interesting that it took the German news show Tagesschau, which we're watching religiously every day, a long time to start reporting on the fires in California. The general chaos of the year 2020 probably weighted heavier than our entire state affected by forest fires.