I walked out onto a balcony on the morning of November 9th and wondered why the usual clear view of downtown San Francisco was shrouded in smog. By this point, much of the Bay Area had been obscured by smoke that had traveled hundreds of kilometers from the fires started the previous morning in Butte County.
Fires in California aren’t uncommon, so I shrugged it off and we drove to Lake Tahoe, a trip we’d already had planned on taking today. Lake Tahoe had crystal clear skies, so the fires never crossed our minds. We came back on the evening of the 10th, taking notice of the presence of thick smoke on the I-80. I wasn’t alarmed until the next morning when I checked the weather on my phone and saw a condition I’d never seen before: Very Unhealthy Air Quality.
Not much changed in the first couple of days. It wasn’t until I went into the city on my birthday, the 13th, that I noticed how apocalyptic it was starting to look. Everyone was walking around in masks but it still felt like business as usual. My cousin living in East Bay wasn’t letting his kids play outdoors. Cafes were all full because nobody sat outside. The fire was 125,000 acres and only 30% contained.
More than 1 million students were kept home from school due to the unwavering condition of toxic smoke. People started to wear masks with air filters. The Camp Fire had already become the deadliest fire in California history, surpassing the previous fire Griffith Park fire in 1933 by double. Images of destroyed buildings in Paradise were spreading on social media. The fire was 140,000 acres and 40% contained.
One week since clear skies. The usual Philz Coffee where I worked on the border of Oakland and Berkeley was filled. I had my camera with me so I decided to go outside and take photos of people wearing masks. I didn’t feel like people outside of California realized how serious the fires were. Cyclists and pregnant women all wore masks. The death toll rose to 71. The fire was 146,000 acres and 50% contained.
A friend sent me a photo on Instagram that struck me. It was the same view I’d seen at the top of Potrero Hill earlier that day. My cousin, who told me I was exaggerating when I said San Francisco looked apocalyptic, had gone into the city and saw everyone wearing masks himself. He didn’t think I was exaggerating anymore. The photos of the Woolsey Fire in Southern California were spreading online, further exhibiting the hellish results of climate change throughout the entire state. The fire was 149,000 acres and 55% contained.
I didn’t see blue skies again until the 20th of November. On the 25th, it was announced that the Camp Fires had reached 100% containment after burning through 153,336 acres and taking 85 lives. High winds and low humidity in large part drove the fires, also fueled by areas parched from 200 days without rain. The air in California was, at several points, recorded as the worst in the world.
Scientists say this will happen again and will eventually become a new normal. Extreme weather events will continue to get more extreme and more frequent. Lise Van Susteren, co-founder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance noted that the Paradise wildfires were only the “tip of the spear,” for the kids involved. We are in an era where the consequences of climate change are only starting to be felt. My hope is that this will wake people up to the drastic changes that need to be made. It’s the only chance we have to turn this crisis around.