But when I looked, what I found was that the mountain was not to be found. Occupying the 10 miles of space between downtown Brentwood and Mt. Diablo was a miasma of grey, residue of the charred landscape of Northern California. The Summer of Smoke had begun.
Our wildfire season was well underway by mid-June, bringing to a climax the driest two-month stretch in the state's history on the heels of two years of subnormal rainfall. The smolder got bolder when dry lightning raked Northern California the weekend of June 20, igniting more than 800 new fires. The governor called out the National Guard.
By the Fourth of July, an estimated 1,700 wildfires were burning in the state of California. Stoked by record temperatures and swirling winds, the blazes were more than a match for the 20,000 firefighters marshaled to snuff them out. By mid-July, more than 800,000 acres of forest had been reduced to blackened stumps, and nearly 300 fires were still alive and licking.
The writhing orange plumes of wildfires are lethal for obvious reasons. The second-hand smoke they exhale into our fire-free East County skies carries a more subtle threat. When we breathe wildfire smoke, we're getting a dose of gases and particulates less than a micron in diameter, finer than road dust.
Wildfire particulates don't merely irritate the eyes; they attack the lungs and heart. If you fancy yourself immune to the menace of wildfire haze, fancy again. The annual 100-mile Western States Endurance Run was recently cancelled due to unsafe air – the first time in the 31-year history of the event. Keep in mind: these are the healthy people, owners of the best sets of lungs in the West.
One of the populations most vulnerable to the dangers of wildfire smoke is children, whose respiratory systems are still developing. Our kids breathe more air per pound of body weight than we adults, and are likely to do a good deal of that breathing outdoors. When public health officials issue those air quality advisories, herd your little ones indoors.
On the morning of Saturday, June 28, I struck out on the Hardy Canyon Trail at Round Valley Regional Preserve to bag a panoramic photo of the haze. The air was rank with the aroma of charred trees as I scaled the tallest hill in the park and composed my shot. Mt. Diablo rose 8 miles to my west – theoretically. For all I could tell, the mountain had been plowed under by developers. It was noon, and at that moment Byron Airport was recording a visibility of 6 miles.
Particulate levels for 6-mile visibility weigh in at an average of 80 micrograms per cubic meter per hour, a gentle nudge this side of the category that the air-quality index labels Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. Like children.
We East County folk were fortunate to live far enough from the hypocenters of California's recent wildfires that our homes weren't turned into fuel. But we did occupy another kind of center. Of the major wildfires that erupted across the state by late June, at least 10 occurred within a 60-mile radius of East County, the closest just across the San Joaquin River, northeast of Napa and northwest of Fairfield, where 4,089 scorched acres sent those pesky particulates wafting our way. No token smokin'.
As of this writing, the haze is gone; we can see the mountain again. But it's only late July – we're not out of the woods. That's because the woods aren't out of the woods. According to Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, "Historically, we see the most devastating fires in September and October. As we go on this summer, things will only get drier."
Got a nose for noxious fumes? Sensed the scent of burning plants lately? It's a whiff of things to come.