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The Crisis in the Skies of San Francisco


There is a substantial corpus of writing on the merits and unreliability of California light—its clarity, iciness, fickleness, mood. None of it could account for the light in the Bay Area on Wednesday, September 9th: a dark, ochre stain, like a scrim over the sunrise, that deepened as the day wore on. For hours, it looked like four in the morning. Drivers kept their headlights on; neighbors drew their curtains. There was an ongoing sensation of jet lag. People quickly defaulted to a generational impulse, engaging through documentation. They launched drones to capture the red glint of high-rises downtown and brought tripods and S.L.R.s to the top of Twin Peaks to stake out panoramas. They took selfies in the tangerine light.

The skies were being changed by wildfires—in California, Oregon, and, more recently, Washington—that had overwhelmed the West Coast. During Labor Day weekend, fires in the Sierra National Forest, northeast of Fresno, spread so quickly that campers and hikers there were subject to emergency evacuations; after being told to seek refuge in a lake, several hundred were airlifted out by helicopter. In Southern California, fire spread into the Angeles National Forest, a short drive from the northern edge of Los Angeles; in Northern California, fires in the Mendocino National Forest—sparked, in mid-August, by a rash of lightning storms—were accelerated by dry winds, after weeks of attempted containment.

On Wednesday, the built environment in the Bay Area was safe. It was the sky that was in crisis. A layer of smoke and ash nearly fifty thousand feet high was blocking the sun and scattering its light. By midafternoon, San Francisco had an amber quality, bringing to mind Western films or the elementary-school pastime of antiquing paper. Outside, I was startled to find the outdoors beautiful. Labor Day weekend had coincided with a record-breaking heat wave, but Wednesday afternoon was cool; we were separated from the smoke by the marine layer—the concentration of dense, humid air that often manifests, in San Francisco, as fog. This was welcome, if confusing. At 4 P.M., in the Mission, shops and apartments glowed comfortingly against the artificial night. There was a low note of disaster camaraderie, everyone looking out and checking in, waving one another across the street. At a crosswalk, a man turned to me and noted that, in his forty-two years of living in San Francisco, he had never seen the sky this way—nothing like it. Me, neither, I said, as if I’d lived here for even a decade. We smiled at each other, probably; it’s still hard to translate facial gestures through a mask. Empty parklets, dotting the commercial corridors, looked like feeble solutions to some other, distant problem.

Two years ago, during the 2018 wildfires, I wrote a short dispatch in which I recounted watching a woman in a P100 respirator select salad dressing at a Safeway. At the time, the image struck me as unusual; now, during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems almost quaint. In the past month, new rituals have emerged, some more ceremonial than others, first in response to the pandemic—using masks, gloves, wipes, alcoholic gels and tonics—and now to the fires. The rituals have begun converging. We now monitor the air-quality index, consulting it like the weather, multiple times a day. A.Q.I.—a measurement, established by the Environmental Protection Agency, that denotes the level of air pollution, using a scale from zero to five hundred—has become the determining factor for pandemic-safe social gatherings, telling us whether it’s safe to walk our dogs, exercise, or talk outside. The Web site of PurpleAir, a manufacturer of air-quality sensors, displays a color-coded map of the world studded with A.Q.I. data. A healthy A.Q.I., of between zero and fifty, is denoted by circles of yellow and green; orange and red indicate air that carries some risk. For A.Q.I. levels between two hundred and five hundred, the circles run from eggplant to maroon. Their presence usually coincides with text messages from the city’s Department of Emergency Management, warning that outdoor activity should be avoided.

On Thursday, the A.Q.I. map looked like a cluster of ripening grapes; the nearest clear air was in Nevada. The orange light receded; instead, the city was a dull white. Friends in Portland packed go bags. Group text messages fluttered around the question of whether those with small children should leave and where they might go. People noted their headaches, sore throats, and itchy eyes. By Friday, towns and communities up and down the West Coast had been incinerated. Twelve people in California were reported dead. Fires in Oregon had consumed nearly a million acres, and thousands had been evacuated, with a half million more awaiting the order.

In San Francisco, the crisis remained confined to the air and the light. Even indoors, a thin haze hovered. Glancing through the windows, one saw what looked like heavy fog. It was a thick, suspended ash, which clung to the glass. It is hard not to sound histrionic when considering the source: what looks like a dusting from a mild snowfall is the particulate remains of people’s homes, their personal histories.

Some are saying that these crises are too much to bear; that the collision of public-health issues is unsustainable; that California will soon become uninhabitable; that people will flee. But the state has always offered its residents reasons to leave: earthquakes, drought, heat, fires; political and economic cruelties. A certain degree of volatility is part of the pact. It seems just as likely that people will adapt, as they always do, until adaptation, by will or necessity, turns into retreat.

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