Smoke and Light

“Yin and yang (or yin-yang) is a complex, relational concept in Chinese culture that has developed over thousands of years. Briefly put, the meaning of yin and yang is that the universe is governed by a cosmic duality, sets of two opposing and complementing principles or cosmic energies that can be observed in nature.” [From]

This concept is on full display in my valley this evening in the stunning orange sunset.

sunset on clouds
The sky is on fire.

I see a lot of these colorful sunsets here. Why? Because I’m fortunate (location, location, location). I live on the east slope of a big valley, facing ridges and mountains to the west. And because there’s often lots of smoke in the air, intensifying the color of the sunsets.

When the sun is setting – is low in the sky – its light passes through more gas molecules in the atmosphere as well as dust, pollution, and smoke particles. Those molecules and particulates scatter the violet and blue light away from our eyes, leaving sunsets that are often yellow, orange, and red.

The yin – smoke – mixing with the yang – sunlight – makes for nature’s stunning sunsets.

sunset through fence
Trying for something more artistic that also obscures the house below.

Living next to a national forest, I’ve become accustomed to smoke in the air, whether from a wildfire burning nearby, or “prescribed” burns used to manage the forests, reducing undergrowth and slash piles so there’s less fuel to burn should there be a wildfire later on. This time of year, the smoke comes from prescribed burns.

valley with smoke
Looking southwest yesterday morning from up in the forest. Layers of smoke from a prescribed burn just out of view to the south flow on the breeze, blanketing the valley in a blue haze.

Depending on conditions, sometimes the smoke settles over the valley throughout the day. It smells like you’re sitting around a campfire. A pleasant smell, although you wonder what effect the smoke will have on your lungs. While that’s not an appealing thought, being able to enjoy a sunset like tonight’s removes some of the sting. If the forest becomes more resilient and less prone to suffering a devastating scorched-earth type of wildfire in the future, I’m all for prescribed burns.

This past summer we were lucky here in central Idaho, just one significant wildfire nearby, remote enough in the national forest to threaten only one backcountry establishment. In years past, fires have been closer to towns and far more threatening, causing evacuations and leaving thick smoke in the air for days or weeks at a time. In 2015 I watched smoke plumes from the Tepee Springs fire – 95,000 acres eventually burned – just a few miles north of my house.

Tepee Springs fire smoke
Smoke from the Tepee Springs fire as seen from my subdivision on August 21, 2015.
smoke plume, dogs in yard
A fresh plume of smoke from the ever-growing Tepee Springs Fire, seen from the yard on August 26, 2015.
wildfire smoke
Zooming in. It’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

So yeah, unlike some of my neighbors, I don’t complain about the prescribed burns or the smoke they toss into the air. To me, they’re a science-based response to a horrible wildfire problem across the west, and by far the lesser of two evils. On the upside: the sunsets. Oh, the sunsets.

sunset through fence

3 thoughts on “Smoke and Light”

  1. Beautiful and scary at the same time. When I lived in California we had spent a long weekend camping in the mountains above Santa Barbara. When we were headed home, a wild fire had just started burning so there were no responders yet. We found ourselves driving on a back road with fire on both sides. It was touch and go for a few minutes but we made it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yikes! Thankfully I’ve never been that close to a wildfire, and hope I never am. Watching similar scenes on the news during some of the recent California fires, it’s horrifying. Bad enough attending community meetings about possible evacuations “if things worsen,” can’t imagine driving through embers, an eerie orange glow and thick smoke, not knowing whether you’ll get through or not.


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