Smoke From West Coast Wildfires Reaches CU

By Sammi St. Leger

Champaign-Urbana skies take on a gray cast as smoke from west coast wildfires spreads.

While it may look like clouds to CU residents, the gray cast above is actually smoke coming from 78 wildfires burning in 12 states. In addition to these numbers, the National Interagency Fire Center has reported almost 4 million acres of burned land so far. The fires are most intense in California, Oregon and Washington, where they’ve killed at least 34 people. Smoke from these fires has been carried across the globe – in some areas becoming thick enough to obscure the sun. At certain times of the day CU residents can look outside and see the sun in a perfect circle with no rays due to smoke blockage. 

First year masters student in atmospheric sciences, Scott James, said the smoke is carried upward into the atmosphere by hot air the fires create. From there, the jet stream picks up smoke particles and carries them across the globe. He said because the smoke is far above residents in CU, the air quality remains safe.

“The smoke is thousands of feet above our heads, and the only thing that will happen is milky skies and pretty sunsets,” James said.

James said this has been the largest wildfire season recorded in California history. It’s likely caused by climate change, as the state has been experiencing increased heat waves and drought, drying out vegetation and creating an environment easily susceptible to a spark. The spark could be caused by weather (lightning) or humans (such as with gender reveal parties that have caused multiple fires – one in California recently took the life of a firefighter). James also noted that lesser fires in past years have created even more vegetation susceptible to the large blazes.

Although CU residents may not be in immediate danger, the effects of climate change pose a very serious threat to humans worldwide. James said climate change is very real and it’s “no coincidence” California recorded their largest wildfire season on record alongside the nation’s second largest hurricane season since 2005, with Hurricane Sally hitting the Gulf Coast.

“We are running out of time before our actions become completely irreparable,” James said.