Northern California Air Quality Worsens Amid Wildfires

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Smoke from the Caldor fire near Pollock Pines, Calif., on Wednesday.
Credit...Fred Greaves/Reuters

Azi Paybarah

  • Aug. 19, 2021Updated 7:12 a.m. ET

The wildfires burning in Northern California, including the rapidly expanding Caldor fire, are affecting more people than simply those forced to evacuate. Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California, Davis, said the air quality in the area was getting worse every day.

“I can look right at the sun,” he said, “and it doesn’t bother me at all.”

The air quality is projected to remain at unhealthy levels on Thursday in the Sacramento area, where the Caldor fire has been quickly growing all week. It has consumed more than 62,000 acres in less than a week, destroying buildings in the small community of Grizzly Flats and forcing an emergency closure of the Eldorado National Forest.

  1. A CalFire firefighter amidst the flames of the Caldor Fire near Pollock Pines, Calif.
    Max Whittaker for The New York Times
  2. The Caldor Fire burns in the Eldorado National Forest near Pollock Pines, Calif.
    Max Whittaker for The New York Times
  3. A forest burned by the Caldor Fire.
    Max Whittaker for The New York Times
  4. CalFire firefighters hike in to dig a containment line.
    Max Whittaker for The New York Times
  5. The sun is obscured by smoke over burning forest.
    Max Whittaker for The New York Times
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The fire has injured two people and is zero percent contained.

The second-largest blaze in the state’s recorded history, the Dixie fire, has been spreading for more than a month farther north, burning more than 635,000 acres in Butte, Plumas, Lassen and Tehana Counties. It is 35 percent contained.

Cal Fire said on Wednesday that fire activity increased on the western side of the Dixie fire because of clearing smoke and a change in wind direction. On the eastern side, said Geoff Belyea, an incident commander, there was “fire behavior that many of our seasoned and veteran firefighters had yet to see in their careers.”

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it: It was a bare-knuckle fight,” he added.

Two other active blazes in the state, the McFarland fire in Shasta County and the Monument fire in Trinity County, have each burned more than 100,000 acres.

Noting the size of the fires, Mr. Wexler said, “The firefighters can only do so much.”

“My prediction is some of these fires are just going to be here until it rains,” he added, “which will be hopefully October, and not later than that.”

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Credit...Nick Petrack/U.S. Forest Service, via Associated Press

While wildfires occur throughout the West every year, scientists see the influence of climate change in the extreme heat waves that have contributed to the intensity of fires this summer. Prolonged periods of abnormally high temperatures are a signal of a shifting climate, they say.

In addition to wildfires along the West Coast, firefighters are battling several smaller blazes in the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. The largest of those fires, the Greenwood fire, is about 4,000 acres and “moving very quickly due to strong gusts of wind and dry vegetation,” officials said this week. It has forced some evacuations after being started by lightning on Sunday.

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