The North State’s Smoke and Ash; Reminders of Loss, Destruction

A sunflower droops in the North State smoke. Photo by Jim Dowling

Northern Californians have adapted to smoke-choked skies for a few weeks now during what’s turned into a record-setting fire season.

But Wednesday morning residents awoke to an especially eerie dirty-orange glow that gave a sensation of nighttime at daybreak. Vehicles drove with headlights on. Redding’s streetlights, activated at dusk, remained lighted long after sunrise.

If one didn’t know better, the sky looked as if it was covered in thunderclouds, on the verge of dumping the mother of all rainstorms.

Many people tried to capture the surreal scene with their cell phone cameras, as I did from my front porch. I don’t know about you, but my photo didn’t do the smoke justice.

West Redding Wednesday morning. Photo by Doni Chamberlain

For North Staters who survived the 2018 Carr Fire, the sight and smell of smoke delivers vivid, grim reminders of the inferno that destroyed so many lives, homes and property two years ago.

For our Butte County neighbors who suffered through the Camp Fire that consumed all of Paradise, their feeling of anxiety is probably even more acute.

Now, Butte County has been hit again. Wednesday Supervisor Debra Lucero reported that Tuesday night in Butte County, three people were confirmed dead, 12 people were reported missing, and approximately 2,000 structures were destroyed by fire that tore through Butte County’s foothills.

The 2018 Carr Fire on Highway 299 in west Redding. July 2018.

In west Redding, Jim Dowling captured this image of his recently constructed  home, one built on the same site where the Carr Fire destroyed the Dowling home in July of 2018.

The Dowling home in Redding Redding Wednesday morning. Photo by Jim Dowling.

The difference between the Carr Fire smoke of 2018 and the smoke blanketing the North State now in September of 2020 is there are no active fires in the immediate vicinity.

While the adage of “where there’s smoke there’s fire” is usually the case, the North State’s current abundance of smoke certainly originated from fires, but blazes many miles away.

In Igo, west of Redding, Steve DuBois was taking photos of a memorial service at the Northern California Veterans Cemetary Wednesday when he captured this shot.

Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo. Photo by Steve DuBois.

And in San Francisco, Raya Cannan took this photo Wednesday morning from an apartment window located in the Richmond District, a few blocks from Ocean Beach.

According to fire expert Royal Burnett, the massive quantity of smoke is largely a result of the Bear Fire near Oroville, and the August Complex west of Red Bluff.

To address many of the questions people are asking about the fires and smoke, Burnett took to Facebook to offer his insights about the fires, and prevention measures, too.

Burnett is retired from the California Department of Forestry and has lived in Redding for more than 40 years.

You may recall Burnett’s previous 2018 opinion piece about residential fires.

With his permission we’re publishing his latest post here today.

By Royal Burnett –

For those of us living under the smoke cloud, I want to tell you, be concerned, but don’t be afraid. This is a bit of a large fire behavior primer.

We had a lightning storm on August 17 which ignited hundreds of fires in the wildlands. Some of those fires burned very fast (rate of spread, ROS), driven by the outflow winds from the thunderstorms. Those fires are unpredictable since we have no idea which direction a thunderstorm downburst wind will push it.

When the storm passed and wind subsided, the fires became fuel or terrain driven fires. They burned where there was enough fuel to support, or uphill where alignment created more available fuel.

Since there was so many fires — some of these got pretty big — but CalFire mobilzed quickly and got a handle on the the ones in State Responsibility Area (SRA). In the North State we had some problem areas on Federal land.

Without going too deeply into it and not agency-bashing, I’ll just say that the United States Forest Service fights fire with less urgency than CalFire. Granted, Federal Responsibility Area (FRA) is usually steeper, with less access and heavier fuels. It’s worth noting that most of the major fires in Nor Cal are burning on US Forest Service (FRA) land.

We had two major fire complexes close to Redding; both FRA PNF North complex ( Plumas National Forest), which consisted of the Clairmont and Bear fires and the MNF August complex (Mendocino National Forest), which consisted of the 37 fires which eventually burned together into the Doe/Tatum/Glade fire.

Both of those fire complexes, as well as the Red Salmon complex near Hoopa, had miles of open (uncompleted) fire line. When Tuesday’s north wind hit, disaster struck.

Wind is like water. It follows the path of least resistance. The north wind is blowing from the Nevada and Idaho desert. It warms and dries as it loses elevation and funnels into the Sacramento Valley mountain and river passes. It was the north wind funneling through the Feather River canyon that pushed the Camp Fire that burned the town of Paradise in the Camp Fire last year.

This year the north wind pushed the Bear Fire down the middle fork of the Feather river into Oroville. The winds spread those other fires (the Red Salmon and August complex) all over the map as the wind eddied and rolled in the minor canyons. The Bear Fire moved 15 miles downcanyon overnight.

Forest fuels are drought-starved and we’re seeing long distance spot fires as a regular occurrence. A spot fire might start up to 10 miles in advance of the main fire. If you’re warned to evacuate, don’t hesitate and wait to see what the fire is doing. It may be already established in front of you.

Same advice for you firemen: Keep one foot in the black and your head on a swivel. I’m hearing reports of civilian burn victims in the Berry Creek area of Butte County.

These next two months are the worst months for wildland fires in California. The fuels are cured and the weather is unsettled. We get dry cold fronts followed by north wind just like the one that just passed.

Be careful.

Meanwhile, north of the North State, neighboring Oregon has declared a state of emergency. From Ashland to Medford fire has burned north along the I-5 corridor and beyond, with many structures lost.

Northern California Veterans Cemetery entrance in Igo. Photo by Steve DuBois

So much smoke. And with the smoke comes countless fine particles of its companion ash that falls like dry, gray tears upon every surface; evidence of what it’s destroyed, from forests and neighborhoods, to historical structures and living creatures of every kind.

Please feel free to share in the comments section updates and fire-related information you believe may be important.

In the meantime, click here for an update about Shasta County air quality and health and safety recommendations.

Click here for CalFire’s wildfire safety plan.

Thank you, firefighters.

Stay safe everyone.



By Royal Burnett

Sept 10. 2020
I’ve never seen a week for wildand fires like this. The numbers are mind-boggling. We had an increase of more than one million acres burned in the last week! These are totals from the larger fires. Some are not reported. I’m sure our actual acres burned is larger than I report here (1,001,500 ). The Fork Fire in El Dorado County and the Oak Fire in Mendocino would add another 2500 acres to the total.

It’s sad when fires of this size hardly rate a mention. These numbers change fast as USFS changes fires from one complex to another, and we’re under a thick layer of smoke, making mapping difficult. Most of these fires report very little containment

The following list includes each fire’s name, the current number of acres as of 9/10/20, and the acreage increase since 9/3/2020:

Slater (Happy Camp) 90,000 start 9/7 +90,000
Red Salmon (Hoopa) 71,000 29,000 +42,000
North Complex (Oroville)252,000 30,000 +222,000
( includes Bear fire )
Elkhorn (Red Bluff) 255,000 44,000 +211,000
Hopkins fire)
August Complex (Willows)471,000 275,000 +196,000
(minus Hopkins)
Creek (Fresno) 167,000 start 9/4 +167,000
Dolan ( Big Sur) 94,000 31,000 + 31,000
Castle ( Kern County) 67,000 61,000 +6000
BobCat ( LA County) 20,000 start 9/6 +20,000
ElDorado ( Oak Glenn) 12,000 start 9/5 +12000
Valley (San Diego) 18,000 start 9/5 +18,000

Prior to this disastrous week CalFire has been reporting 2 million acres burned this year.

News reports four lives lost ( 3 in Butte County; one in Siskiyou County) and many, many homes destroyed.
The state of Oregon might have numbers similar to these. Satellite pictures show fires in the center of the state running literally from Ashland to Portland. I counted at least 6 major fires burning there yesterday.

OK, we all agree we’re in a period of climate change, and we all agree that global warming is making our wildland fires bigger and burn hotter.

What are we going to do about it?

Are we going to continue with land and forest management practices that created these fuel buildups, or are we going to ask state and federal leaders for meaningful reform?

We need to work at this from all angles. Harden the homes in the Wildland Urban Interface. Create tax breaks similar to solar credits for homeowners who harden their homes or create defensible space. We cannot allow agencies to allow fuel buildups. Cities must thin greenbelts, counties must maintain parks, and federal agencies have simply got to change their thinking and land management practices.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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