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Like most northern Californians, Oakland residents woke up this morning to a burnt umber sky. The day was just starting, but the sun appeared to be setting in a Martian fog. Smoke from several mega-fires is billowing high into the atmosphere, blotting out the sun and drawing a range of reactions.
According to UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain, the fires are creating “pyrocumulnimbus clouds,” or “fire clouds,” reaching 50,000 feet high. According to the National Weather Service, the skies won’t clear up anytime soon.
Few have ever seen anything like this before. “I’ve seen it when I’m actually at a big fire, but not such a blanket from so far away,” said Zac Unger, an Oakland firefighter who grew up in the East Bay and remembers the 1991 hills firestorm. Unger noted that many Californians now talk about “smoke season” as though it were a normal rite of fall.
According to Rockridge resident Michael Selvidge, the smoke layer is so dense that it’s blocking the spectrum of sunlight that’s needed for solar panels to generate electricity. “Even on cloudy or foggy days, I’ll get about half the power of a sunny day,” said Selvidge. Today, he’s gotten zero power from his panels.
Huong Nguyen Yap was taking her 4-year-old son Malcolm to daycare this morning when he “kept asking us why we’re going to school when it’s dark out.” Here are incredible views and reactions from more Oakland residents around the city, with many noting that their phone cameras can’t do justice to the eerie scene.
Candace Apple, 50, backend engineer and Montclair resident
The rainbows that dance overnight in Candace Apple’s backyard are confused. Her husband installed a display of LED lights some time back, projecting a colorful rainbow effect onto their fence. The lights automatically blink on when it’s dark out, and, normally, go out when the sun comes up. Today, it’s nearly noon, and the rainbows are still doing their thing. “It’s really weird,” said Candace. Other visual wackery right now: the blue bathroom, which has a skylight, is glowing red. You can’t see further than four houses down from Apple’s window; usually, she can see all the way to Emeryville.
“The worst part is you can’t go out and commiserate with your friends,” Apple said this morning, as her kids logged on to school from home and blankets of ash further obscured the view—yet more jarring sights. She and her best friend became close after her friend lost her home in the ‘91 Oakland Hills Firestorm. “When her home burned down, I reached out to her mother to ask how I could help—could I help replace high school yearbooks? That sort of thing. I wish we could just get in the pool or go to the movies. You don’t have any of your normal touchstones.”
Jerry Parmer, who lives in Bushrod and is on staff at the Chabot Canyon Racquet Club, where he also plays tennis
“I was supposed to play at 10 a.m., but I canceled because there was visible ash on the court surface, leaving footprints. I’ve lived here since 2012 and grew up in Southern California. This seems to be the most dramatic morning, in terms of how dark it was. I woke up at seven, thinking it was before six. Then it got even darker. I work the evening shift at the tennis club, and I’m waiting for my boss to make a call. He opened this morning, but we’ve had several cancelations—though there are a few diehards. I’m gonna stay inside, and I’ve got the house shut.
The cat came in and I petted her, and she felt ashy. It does throw the animals off. It’s like when the eclipses hit and the birds go quiet because they think it’s nighttime. It’s like everything else in 2020—plague of locusts, frogs. In the back of my mind is the horrific situation with fires all over the state, and the lack of leadership from the federal government.”
Jacobo Juarez, 45, Lake Merritt resident
“I opened the window this morning and I was like, holy shit, what’s going on? Of course I knew what was going on, but it’s just crazy. When I stepped outside to take out the recycling, it was totally quiet—the birds aren’t chirping today. People are driving by with their headlights on at 11:30 in the morning. The feeling to me is like when there’s a full eclipse—there’s this kind of feeling that time stands still.
I have a six-year-old daughter. We’ve been very straightforward with her about the fact that there are these massive fires. We’ve also tried to explain that this wasn’t something normal when we were kids. And she actually took it very well—she said, ‘It looks like Mars! it’s so awesome!’ She also wants to go hiking because she wants to see the nocturnal animals. She’s asking me if the owls are still out and if the salamanders are still out. She’s in great spirits.”
Freddie Lee, 52, a video game artist who lives in the Oakland hills
Freddie Lee took this picture at 9:30 a.m. from the living room window of his home in Hiller Highlands to share with a friend who lives out of state. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It looks like something out of Blade Runner 2049—like doomsday. The sun is blocked out, and everything is in sepia tone.”
This morning, his eight-year-old daughter woke up only 10 minutes before the start of online school, because it was so dark out. Thanks to that, she hasn’t had much time to process what the world looks like outside her “classroom” window. Lee, who designs virtual landscapes as a video games artist, said he and his family are taking the multiple, intertwined wierdnesses of the real world one day at a time. “I’m starting to realize this is the new normal,” he said.
Stephanie Lister, East Oakland resident
“It looks like we’re on the red planet. It’s the planet of war, anger, violence. It’s a fire sign—it feels very present. I feel like I need a space helmet to go outside.”
Sarah Belle Lin, Oakland resident, independent journalist, and Oaklandside contributor
“I knew something was off when I woke up at 7 a.m. and my room was still as dark as night. I wasn’t staying in bed after looking through my window. The skies were a light orange-brownish color that I knew was thick with wildfire smoke—can we even tell from which ones at this point? I ran down the street, still in my pajamas, and jumped into my car. I drove to Lake Merritt—seeing people walking their dogs and running around the lake was mind-blowing.
Just when it couldn’t get weirder, the skies changed colors from a dull light brown to a frightening bright burnt orange. I’ve lived in the Bay Area my entire life, and there’s been nothing comparable to this. It’s truly apocalyptic, and I hope this serves as another reality check for us all.”
Alex Janney, 32, an events manager for a housing development company who lives in West Oakland
Alex Janney took this photo of the street outside his house on Linden Street in West Oakland at 8:38 a.m. “Everyone is using crazy, outlandish movie references because that’s the only thing we can relate it to,” Janney said. “It does look like Mad Max. It looks like a picture from a Rover on Mars. A few people have messaged me saying, ‘Oh, this has to be edited.’ I don’t even know how to do that. I don’t even have a great phone.”
Brian Howey, 32, freelance reporter and U.C. Berkeley journalism student who lives in West Oakland
“We live in this insane intersection of the pandemic and fire season, and it has really created an apocalyptic vibe. I know it’s cliche to say, but that’s the feeling you get as soon as you look out the window, that I’ve woken up in hell or Mordor or something. For the most part, the people I saw on the street were getting jogs in, walking down Mandela Parkway. A few minutes ago, I found out my friends in Browns Valley were evacuated last night. They just bought their house last year. To hear that, to see the sky like this and to see people out for their morning jogs and scrolling through their phones in the middle of it all shows how numb we’ve grown to trauma lately. This year has been so hard already, the sky turning red is just the cherry on the rotten cake that is 2020.”
Grace Taylor, 23, a student at UC Berkeley who lives in West Oakland
“It was pretty terrifying. I’ve lived in California for my whole life and I’ve always seen fire season every year, but this is something I’ve literally never seen before. It’s very apocalyptic and haunting. I don’t really know how to react to it beyond being in disbelief. It’s like nuclear winter.”
Correction: We previously misspelled Huong Nguyen Yap’s name, and we regret the error.