Orange alert: Vietnamese diaspora shocked by 'apocalyptic' California skies

By Anh Ngoc   September 11, 2020 | 05:06 am PT
It was the warmest of colors, but Elizabeth Nguyen’s blood ran cold after waking up to a surreally orange San Francisco sky.

She’d never seen anything like it before. It was September 9.

"I have lived here for 30 years, but I have never seen anything like this," she told VnExpress. She knew something was seriously wrong, because there was also a layer of dirt and ash on her car.

The surreal sky and a scene resembling perpetual predawn light have made San Francisco look like a set for a movie about the apocalypse. The area is being ravaged by raging wildfires.

The wildfires have stopped raging in the city, but smoke and ashes from Chico, two hours drive away, attest to its presence nearby.

"Wildfires in Chico over the last three days have spread ash to many neighboring cities like San Francisco. When driving east, I can see ash in the air like snowflakes and sometimes I cannot see the road ahead," Nguyen said.

Orange sky with an abundance of ashes resembling a scene on Mars on September 9, 2020. Photo by Trung Le.

A surreally orange sky in San Francisco on September 9, 2020. Photo by Trung Le.

Firefighters in California have been fighting against the biggest-ever wildfires on the West Coast that have forced many people to evacuate. At least eight people have died in California, Oregon and Washington in the last 24 hours and officials have said the number of fatalities could rise since there are several locations that cannot be approached at the moment.

"I woke up in the morning and thought it was still night," said Trung Le, another Vietnamese resident of San Francisco.

"I have never seen this before. Orange sky with thick smoke making it dark as if it was sunset," he said.

The orange sky turned gray on the afternoon of September 10, after some wildfires were put out. While Le's area was barely touched by the flames, many of his colleagues were preparing to evacuate in case another fire broke out and spread to their area.

In Mendocino County's Willits, Huy Pham is one of those anticipating an evacuation order from local authorities.

"Living in a remote area with a lot of greenery is a great thing until a wildfire strikes. It is an awful annual disaster in California," said Pham, a photographer who lives in Willits with his family. Such massive disasters only need a small fire accidentally set by someone, he noted.

A street in San Francisco is filled with ashes from the raging fires on September 9, 2020. Photo by Trung Le.

A San Francisco street covered with wildfire ash from surrounding areas, September 9, 2020. Photo by Trung Le.

In Mendocino, two large wildfires have been raging, one in Oak Fire and another one in August Complex. On the morning of September 10, the August Complex was estimated to cover 190,682 hectares, making it the largest fire complex in California history, surpassing the 2018 Mendocino Complex fire which had burned in the southern part of the Mendocino National Forest.

The fires have caused a severe drop in the air quality index (AQI) in Willits, which has hovered around 400 over the last two days. Air quality in Willits has reached hazardous levels, according to the U.S. government’s Air Now website. Under these circumstances people are advised to stay indoors and if possible run air filters, while those who have to be outside should try to wear N95 masks.

Many residents are struggling to deal with the pollution.

"The sky in my area is red, dirt and ash look like snow, we must close all doors and use tapes to stick on windows for days with air filters turned on," said Pham. He said he has reduced going out and wears N95 masks when he does. Both "staying at home and smelling the smoke are enough to trigger a headache," he added.

Since the morning of September 7, Willits has become a "yellow area", which means the city assesses moderate risk from the fires. An evacuation warning from the local authority has been sent to Huy's phone. But sometimes people in remote areas do not have stable phone connections, so the police have to go there and ask them to leave.

Huy and his family members had finished packing and stood ready to leave. But, luckily, the firefighters succeeded in putting the fire out on the night of September 7, saving around 800 households. The warning was removed on the morning of September 10, but the ash remains.

This year, California has seen its biggest-ever wildfire season with around 879,000 hectares razed with four months of the season still remaining. The wildfire death count in the state has reached 16, so far.

California governor Gavin Newsom has blamed climate change. "I have no patience for climate-change deniers. It’s inconsistent with the reality on the ground, the facts," he said.

Pham, who has lived in the U.S. for 11 years now, has witnessed three wildfires as an annual occurrence in California. The hot and dry summer weather lasting from June to October makes the place vulnerable to this disaster. Since May, there has been no rain where he lives.

Pham said he stands ready to evacuate as soon as there is an order from the authority

"Local firefighters have been able to put out around 25 percent of the wildfires. Perhaps we have to wait for the rains to put out the flames. If the wind gets strong, I think the situation will turn hopeless."

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