09 July 2008

Kind of scary ...

‘Twas another terrible air day here in Northern California.

No, it’s not the millions of cars on the highways, even though I was in one of them (without any other alternative) although that’s not helping. It’s the wildfire smoke again.

I drove down into the valley this morning to pick up my mom in the lower foothills. When I left my own house up in the mountains, it was only 9 a.m., but already the temperature was in the low 90s. It looked a bit hazy and I could smell smoke, faintly, on the air as I got into the car.

By the time I arrived at Mom’s place, 20 miles down-mountain, the haze was much thicker. I picked her up and we headed to Sacramento Metro Airport, where my uncle, who lives in Alexandria, VA, was due in at 1 p.m.

The airport – and Sacramento itself – sits almost dead-center in the Sacramento Valley, part of the much larger Central Valley of California. The lower the elevation, the worse the smoke got. When we arrived at the airport at noon the sky was a dull, gray-brown, and the smoke was so thick you could taste it.

In spite of the smoke, which was blocking the most of the sun, it was also incredibly hot, well into triple digits. A hot, useless wind was blowing.

“It’s almost kind of scary,” Mom said as we walked into the terminal. I agreed. I’ve seen smoke this thick before, but it was because I was very near a wildfire, chasing fire trucks for the paper. To see it cover an entire region like this is scary.

My uncle’s plane arrived. His first words when he saw us were, “You wouldn’t believe what it looks like from the air!” We got his suitcase and headed for the parking garage, trying not to breathe. Mom already had a headache, and I was getting one. My sinuses were clogged and my eyes were burning.

During the drive back, the air was even worse. The smoke had gotten thicker. It looked like a typical mid-winter day – except it was horrifically hot. We stopped in Folsom for a late lunch. By the time we were back at her house in the foothills, the air quality had worsened to the point it looked like it had at the airport three hours earlier.

On my 40-minute drive up the side of the valley into the higher mountains and home, I kept thinking the air would get better. I’d climb back up out of it. And I was right – it did get better, but only marginally. As I write this, the strange, smoky overcast remains. The sun looks like a pale lemon disk. It can’t break through.

In the summer the Sacramento Valley is typically a problem area for air quality because of its bowl-like nature. High pressure areas build up and stall, the sun glares down, the temperature rises and a phenomenon called an “inversion layer” settles in. The bad air – filled with car exhaust, can’t escape. The wind doesn’t blow. It just gets trapped in the valley where it just gets worse and worse, going nowhere.

Generally, this sort of thing lasts a few days at a time, then the high pressure moves through and the air clears up. There’ve been a few times in recent summers when the inversion layer has formed and stuck for a week or so. But this – this is far worse because there’s thick wildfire smoke mixing with the exhaust fumes to create truly hazardous breathing conditions, even for healthy people.

And there’s nothing, really, that can be done about it. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, there are still 59 active fires in the state. There were more than 1000 of them burning after the thunderstorms that rolled through roughly two weeks ago, dropping little in the way of rain but zapping us everywhere with dry heat lightning. And they’re saying that the smoke could continue to be a problem until the end of the month, at least. If there’s more dry lightning, then we could be facing seriously bad air until the end of the fire season in October, when the rains finally come.

Trouble is, the last three years or so have been very dry in California, and there’s no guarantee that this season will be any wetter. The vegetation, from sea level to high in the mountains is tinder-dry. A good portion of the Nothern California foothills is chaparral, which is covered in toyon, chamise, Manzanita and buckbrush. It’s difficult to fight fires in it. These are all fire shrubs, meaning that they produce seeds in incredibly hard cases that require fire to burst them open. The branches and leaves of these plants are thick with inflammable oils. They go up like torches and burn ferociously hot. After the fire passes and the earth cools, the hardy seeds germinate and a new chaparral is born.

The community my Mom lives in was built, in the 1970s, right in the middle of steep, hilly chapparal. Needless to say, I worry about her every summer. She, in turn, worries about me up here in the evergreens, where it also hasn’t burned in decades and decades.

Under natural conditions – meaning a California sans people and firefighting equipment – lightning would kindle wildfires each summer, and they’d burn and burn and burn until they burned themselves out, or until the rains finally fell and snuffed them. New forests and new chaparral would eventually take the place of what burned.

But now we’ve built suburbs and stripmalls and McMansions with all this dry, flammable stuff all around them, and so we work hard each summer to put fires out and prevent loss of property and, of course, loss of life. As a result, many areas in California are unnaturally overgrown. Big Sur, where one of the worst wildfires is still burning, hasn’t burned in well over 60 years.

My greatest concern so far this summer has been the poor air quality, and I’m lucky enough to live high enough in the mountains that I’ve only had a few days so far when the smoke was really bad. But this is nothing compared to the loss suffered by those whose homes and businesses have been in the path of this summer’s fires. An area the size of Los Angeles has burned so far. The fire up in Butte County, 85 miles north of Sacramento, burned right through the small town of Concow today, taking 40 homes and 10 outbuildings with it.

For those people, the fires mean something far worse than smoke and a dark sky.

The photo above was taken on Highway 50 headed east, up into the mountains, at 4:20 p.m. July 9, 2008.


Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

That IS scary. We're going to have to be careful about selecting a place to live once we move out that way this year.

Lucy said...

I'm moved by your on-the-scene account of these fires; the televised coverage allows for a disconnect. I found your photo quite unsettling.

Wren said...

buswg: What we're experiencing now certainly isn't the norm in this part of California. In the past, SoCal has generally been the area where the worst burns, and thus the worst air quality, have taken place. This bad smoky air is pretty freaky, a combination of uncontrollable factors. At any rate, where in Northern California that you live doesn't matter much this year, though I've always preferred the mountains. These days, with gas prices and a bad-and-getting-worse economy, closer to the city would seem to make more sense.

Lucy: TV does that to all of us, I think. I've watched the floods in the midwest feeling bad for the people who live there, but not really with any true understanding of their plight. This IS unsettling. The upside is that it's temporary and relatively few people have lost homes and livelihoods so far.

Bill Stankus said...

When I was a boy growing up in the Valley - the biggest air issue problems were agricultural dust, the hop fields and a to z pollens.

California once had permanent well trained and manned fire fighting squads throughout the fire zones. Getting hired for the summer with these fire fighters was a real plum deal. And, mostly there was quick fire suppression and I can't recall any major runaway fires (through the 1960's).

Now, my god, it all seems close to chaos. Too many people, too many houses in areas that should be left wild and not enough resources to manage when catastrophe arrives.

It's terrible, what's happening to a once wonderful place.

dorki said...

These fires, especially in northern CA, make me sad. I had a wonderful time visiting the region (including Lassen Volcanic) may years ago.

Best of luck to you and stay as safe as possible.