C.L. Sill

Wildfires continue to burn across parts of Ontario and Manitoba. 

Last week fires in Quetico Provincial Park forced the closure of much of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern, Minn. 

As of Friday, July 23, there were at least seven fires burning in Quetico, three of which are located just north of the border with Minnesota, according to The Timberjay. All seven fires have burned more than 16,000 acres, but larger fires burning further north in Ontario and Manitoba have taken priority over those in the Quetico area. Canadian fire officials are monitoring the fires near the BWCA, but are not actively managing their control. 

The smoke from these fires made its way into central Minnesota and Wisconsin quickly, and has since extended much further south. Wildfire haze caused air quality alerts in the Twin Cities throughout much of last week, though the situation has improved in the last few days. Haze was particularly bad between July 18-21, and was obviously visible across the landscape. For all of its negatives, one of the most profound aspects of wildfire haze is its affect on sunsets. 

You may have noticed an orange, red orb low in the sky where the bright white sun usually sits late in the day last week. And if you were lucky enough to have a good view of the sunset, the affect was multiplied tenfold. 

All wavelengths of visible light are emitted from the sun. Think colors on the rainbow — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Each color of visible light has a different wavelength, some shorter, some longer. Red and orange have the longest wavelengths of all. There’s a very complex, headache inducing explanation for the differing wavelengths, but it boils down to energy intensity.  “Low energy” colors, like red, have long wavelengths and “high energy” colors like violet have short wavelengths.  

Anyway, the color of the sunset is influenced by our atmosphere through a process called “scattering.” Molecules and particles in the air change the direction of light rays, and different waves lengths are affected differently by these particles. 

As it turns out, colors with longer wavelengths like red and orange pass through particles more easily, while shorter wavelength colors like yellow, blue and violet are scattered or deflected before they can reach us. Wildfires intensify this process. 

Wildfire smoke throws millions of extra particles into the atmosphere, and they act as an extreme filter for light wavelengths, intensifying the reds and oranges while further diffusing all other colors. That’s why we see such incredible sunsets during periods of wildfire haze. 

I apologize if you’re nodding off in your morning coffee by now. This is sort of a dry subject, but it’s always piqued my interest. Especially so after a particularly incredible sunset I saw last year. Every spring Dan and I set out to our regular duck hunting spots to photograph the spring migration. I get nearly as much of a kick out of it as I do actually hunting ducks. We put decoys out, sit in a blind, call — just like we would during the season. Only difference is we shoot them with cameras instead of shotguns. 

Last April we set up for an evening shoot at a west-facing location only about 10 minutes from home. It was a pretty uneventful day overall. I think we decoyed one decent flock of mallards and I missed getting any good shots because I was fumbling with the focus when they came in — typical of me whether I’m holding a Canon or a Browning. 

The lack of ducks added to our already disappointing spring. The pandemic had just started to pick up steam and everyone was on edge. We figured the company of ducks could sooth some nervous sensibilities, but it wasn’t to be. 

There also happened to be some wildfires burning in Canada, and as the evening wore on a kind of pinkish red glow began to ooze out of the western skyline and reflect on the water. Very quickly the sky exploded with color, and for the next half hour Dan and I sat back and watched the greatest sunset I’ve ever seen in my life. I didn’t know half of those colors existed, let alone the reason why the sky was so vibrant that night. 

As Dan was out picking up decoys, I snapped this photo. It was the only decent shot I got all day. There’s no filter, no color correction, no enhancement — this is straight through the lens. No one believes me when I tell them that. 

That half hour gave us some relief from the nagging suspicion that loomed in those early weeks of the pandemic. It didn’t last of course, nothing ever does. 

But I’ll remember that sunset for the rest of my life. 

C.L. Sill can be reached at thewingbeat@gmail.com or on Instagram @thewingbeat

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