Orion shines wanly through the orange, forest fire haze this morning from Duluth, Minn. I faintly saw the Belt with the naked eye. Normally, hundreds of stars would be visible.Bob King
Orion shines wanly through the orange, forest fire haze this morning from Duluth, Minn. I faintly saw the Belt with the naked eye. Normally, hundreds of stars would be visible.Bob King

I've never seen smoke this thick in September. In recent years, winds often whisk western wildfire smoke across the U.S. during the summer months, but it's practically fall. I saw the wave of gray miasma arrive long before sunset, filling up the sky and blotting out the blue. By 10 o'clock the stars were so faint I instinctively widened my eyes to see them more clearly. It didn't help. Under a clear, dark, moonless sky only stars of 2nd magnitude or brighter were visible, similar to what you'd see from downtown Chicago.

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A river of fire smoke from West Coast wildfires spreads from the Pacific to the Atlantic across the U.S. and southern Canada today (Sept. 14). NASA
A river of fire smoke from West Coast wildfires spreads from the Pacific to the Atlantic across the U.S. and southern Canada today (Sept. 14). NASA

The origin of the smoke which stole the stars and today (Sept. 14) numbs the light of the sun are the multitude of wildfires blazing across the states of California, Oregon and Washington. A glance at the recent satellite photo reveals a giant tongue of smoke extending east from West Coast to the Atlantic Ocean. Only the southeastern area of the country remains relatively untouched, at least for the moment.

While breathing fire smoke directly can cause respiratory distressmuch of what's veiling the country is being carried along by the jet stream at an altitude around 30,000 feet (9,100 meters) and won't affect the health of those on the ground.

Even in this 40-second time exposure it's not easy to spot the Beehive. Normally, it would jump out and sting you. Bob King
Even in this 40-second time exposure it's not easy to spot the Beehive. Normally, it would jump out and sting you. Bob King

Like me you may have gotten up early this morning to see the pretty Venus-crescent moon conjunction alongside the Beehive cluster. We were in for a little surprise. While the moon and Venus were visible, albeit softened and dimmed, the Beehive was absent. Even with 10x50 binoculars I struggled to see the cluster and had to quadruple the normal exposure time to show it in a photo.

This fire and smoke map shows the extent of the massive smoke cloud (in shades of gray) from the current wildfires on Monday morning, Sept. 14. To access the map anytime and get a smoke forecast for your region click here. Tip: give the map time to load.Airnow.gov
This fire and smoke map shows the extent of the massive smoke cloud (in shades of gray) from the current wildfires on Monday morning, Sept. 14. To access the map anytime and get a smoke forecast for your region click here. Tip: give the map time to load.Airnow.gov

There's no telling how long the smoke will be with us. It varies in thickness from day to day, night to day and even hour to hour. To follow its progress via satellite photos go to weather.msfc.nasa.govand click anywhere on the map for an expanded view of that region. Fire smoke looks silky and diffuse (like fog) compared to clouds which typically have crisper edges. Or you can get a current fire and smoke map like the one above at Airnow.gov.

Clouds pass the sun — heavily filtered by smoke — this morning (Sept. 14) near my home. Bob King
Clouds pass the sun — heavily filtered by smoke — this morning (Sept. 14) near my home. Bob King

While those of us who live far from the wildfires will lose our stars and blue sky for a few days, the people out West are truly suffering. The smoke reminds us we're all in this together and share but a single planet.