“Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” That’s sound advice from a wise mariner. But what about when smoke from California wildfires plunges The Coastside into darkness and the blood-orange sky persists at midday? We went for a drive to immerse ourselves in the weirdness.
It’s been nearly a month since a rogue lightning storm ignited hundreds of fires that have burned roughly 3 million acres in Northern California. Forty miles to the south of our home in Montara, the CZU August Lightning Complex fire has scorched more than 85,000 acres. Communities dotting the Santa Cruz Mountains have been evacuated, homes destroyed and lives lost. It’s been a tragic month.
Find a note on how to help at the end of this post.
The Coastside from Pescadero north has been spared the flames, but a pall of smoke from fires throughout the region has waxed and waned for weeks. When we awoke to smoke-stained fog on Wednesday, we hoped a breeze might blow the mess out to sea so we could open the windows by late afternoon. Instead, the sky turned deep orange from horizon to horizon. And as the morning advanced, darkness fell.
Facebook and NextDoor lit up with references to the apocalypse and nuclear winter. We recalled our experience in the totality zone of the solar eclipse in August 2017. The Geek dismissed MontaraManDan’s first impulse: “Let’s go take a look around.” But, after checking the status of the CZU Complex fires (contained), traffic (light) and the wind (non-existent), she relented and we headed south on Highway 1 with an abundance of caution.
The closer we got to Half Moon Bay the darker it became. The car headlamps lit up the highway reflectors on the center strip. Lights on the boats at Princeton Harbor bobbed with the waves, the Pillar Point Air Force Station – aka the Golf Ball – glowed extra ominously in the gloom. The orange sky took on an umber hue.
Although we had repurposed our pandemic masks as a hedge against breathing in the grime, the air quality on the ground was not that bad. (It would worsen dramatically the next day but without the darkness and orange sky.) We could see a handful of surfers in the water beneath the alien sky at Surfer’s Beach, adding credence to our pandemic-driven theory that surfers are the honey badgers of outdoors enthusiasts.
The darkness began to ease as we rolled past Pescadero. By the time we reached the Pigeon Point Light Station, the midday sky was merely a jaundiced yellow – not nearly as alarming as vivid orange.
Back in Half Moon Bay, the color of the sky closely matched the orange glow of the greenhouse lights at Rocket Farms reflecting off the clouds on a dark winter’s evening. And it was simply too dark to catch a defining downtown photograph among the glare of the headlights on main street.
We made a final stop at Surfers Beach, where we found not only surfers but several couples and families lounging in the sand and playing in the dark waves beneath the now tawny skies.
Absurd? Irreverant? Fun? It seemed a bit bizarre to us. But who are we to judge?
We’ll find a wise mariner and get back to you.
HOW TO HELP:
The American Red Cross and many local organizations are providing food, housing and other relief to hundreds of thousands of people on the West Coast displaced due to wildfires over the past month. You can donate to the Red Cross here or to the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County here.
Our deepest respect and sincere thanks go out to the brave firefighters who tirelessly continue to battle the fires. Some have lost their lives in the protection of others.