Streams of smoke from California wildfires outlined by sunlight stripe the northwestern sky an hour before sunset on August 23. Bob King
Streams of smoke from California wildfires outlined by sunlight stripe the northwestern sky an hour before sunset on August 23. Bob King

California's going up in smoke. As firefighters work to quell more than 600 wildfires in the state, winds have blown the acrid smoke thousands of miles to the east. It now blankets much of the U.S. and parts of Canada. I first noticed the change in the sky's appearance on Aug. 23. Earlier that day it was as blue as a bluejay's feathers but by the afternoon had turned hazy and gray. Clouds didn't look right either, with soft instead of hard edges.

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The satellite view of the upper Midwest around 6:30 p.m. on August 24 shows a river of California wildfire smoke affecting the skies across the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Annotations by the author. NASA / NOAA
The satellite view of the upper Midwest around 6:30 p.m. on August 24 shows a river of California wildfire smoke affecting the skies across the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Annotations by the author. NASA / NOAA

But what really got my attention were the smoky bands that crossed the sky shortly before and during sunset. While the night eventually cleared, the smoke returned the following afternoon. Photos taken by NASA's Terra satellite clearly showthe seriousness of the situation in California and how the smoke has spread east. As of August 26 the pall now extends across more than half the country. You can monitor the situation from your phone or laptop by visiting NASA's GOES-East Satellite Weather site which features a satellite view of the U.S., Canada, Mexico and much of Central America. The view is updated every few minutes.

This is a screen grab of a recent NASA / NOAA satellite picture of the U.S. and surrounding countries. You can adjust the size of the map by changing the width and height (arrow) of the image or see the clouds at night by choosing a different channel (wavelength of light) at top.
This is a screen grab of a recent NASA / NOAA satellite picture of the U.S. and surrounding countries. You can adjust the size of the map by changing the width and height (arrow) of the image or see the clouds at night by choosing a different channel (wavelength of light) at top.

To zoom in to a particular region just click any spot on the image. For a big-picture, high-resolution view of that region, return to the main screen. In the controls area under the photo, set the width to 1400 and and height to 1000. Then click the region of interest again for a giant, full-screen photo. The best time to check out the smoke situation is an hour or two before sunset or after sunrise when the sun's low, glancing rays really make it pop. If you're a stargazer and want to see where the clouds are at night, press the Choose bar at top and select Channel 7for an infrared image.

The same bands seen in the first photo glow orange at sunset on August 23. The thickness and extent of fire smoke is always changing — the day may be hazy but the night clear or vice versa.Bob King
The same bands seen in the first photo glow orange at sunset on August 23. The thickness and extent of fire smoke is always changing — the day may be hazy but the night clear or vice versa.Bob King

Clouds generally appear more discrete with sharp borders while fire smoke looks like smooth, milky haze. For some the pall is a potential health hazard, but it affects what we see in the sky, too. Smoke dilutes sunlight and dims the stars and moon. It also turns the sun into a red ball shortly before sunset and after sunrise. If it doesn't become too thick, smoke makes for more colorful twilights like the example in the picture above.

On August 20 NASA's Terra satellite captured this huge swath of wildfire smoke more than 1,200 miles (1,930 km) long. Winds surrounding the fire dispersed the plume. NASA
On August 20 NASA's Terra satellite captured this huge swath of wildfire smoke more than 1,200 miles (1,930 km) long. Winds surrounding the fire dispersed the plume. NASA

I love red sunsets and out-of-the-ordinary sky phenomena as much as anyone, but for the sake of the people of California and their forests we hope that the situation will be under control soon. The fires are another demonstration of the fact that we live on a finite planet. What happens in one place can touch us all.