Milpitas woke up on Wednesday to a doomy, sunless, orange-shaded sky, the sight of which added to the sense of alarm and exhaustion being experienced by residents on account of the recent triple-digit heat waves and historic wildfires, to say nothing of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As late as noon, it still looked as though we were paused at the crack of dawn.
Here’s what’s happening: Wildfire smoke is being pushed down from the north. It’s coming down from Oregon. It’s coming down from above us in California. For example, Milpitas is downwind from the August Complex fires, which are raging to the tune of some 300,000 acres near Mendocino National Forest and across surrounding counties. And Chico’s Bear Fire, which is currently growing quickly, is also a contributor of smoke and ash.
Ironically, air quality readings have looked better today than they did over Labor Day weekend, amid stale, unwelcome heat wave conditions. Milpitas is actually presently seeing better air and lower temperatures, despite the ominous sky. (At press time, the city is getting a Moderate/Yellow air quality reading, which serves as a warning only to the unusually sensitive.) We can thank a marine layer for the protection; marine layers are stable patches of air that don’t rise. Think of them as bubbles: when bodies of water, in our case The Pacific Ocean, send coolness up into the air above, the air above thickens and becomes like a lid, holding the cool air below in place.
We’re in the bubble presently, so even though the sky does not look good, the air we’re breathing is generally OK.
Yesterday, high winds were keeping the fire smoke at high altitudes, leading to a beige-yellow hue saturating the sky. Today, though, shifting winds have found us coated by a visible layer of ash, hence the pinkish, Mars-like effect.
With record acreage on fire up and down the West Coast, The National Weather Service is picking up historic smoke levels in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, meteorologists are holding out hope for shifting winds to sweep in and clear away the visual noise.
In the meantime, naturally, the more our firefighters are able to battle down the fires, the better it will be for our air and skies.