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Postcards from the Fire's Edge
Welcome to Wildfire Season 2014. These photographs capture what life is like on a planet that's feeling the burn.

Over the last two weeks, California, Arizona, and Alaska have all had to deal with severe wildfires that have surprised officials with their ferocity … and their earliness. Of the nearly one dozen blazes that ended up consuming well over 25,000 acres in heavily populated San Diego County two weeks ago, Carlsbad Fire Chief Michael Davis—a 27-year-veteran—said: “This is unbelievable. This is something we should see in October … I haven’t seen it this hot, this dry, this long in May.”

Just as firefighters were struggling to contain the last of the Southern California burns, a second rash of fires erupted in a neighboring state: this time near Flagstaff, Arizona. As of this writing, the so-called Slide fire has covered more than 25 square miles of that state’s most scenic and well-visited parkland. On or about that same day, a relatively small wildfire on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage, began to build in intensity and started to spread; by the morning of Memorial Day it had grown to cover nearly 248 square miles—an area equivalent to the city of Chicago.

What do the three conflagrations have in common, other than their inability to wait for what we (perhaps foolishly) would like to think of as a seasonally appropriate starting date? All were helped along by catalysts such as the unseasonably high mid-spring temperatures and extraordinarily dry conditions that Davis cites, each of which scientists agree will become the new norm if we don’t act now to reverse the effects of climate change.

Here’s a sampling of what these three fires looked like, as captured in the lenses of local photographers.

On May 14th, photographer Mark Marquez took this shot of the Cocos fire, near the city of San Marcos, California. The Cocos fire was one of more than ten fires that spread across San Diego county during that week. At one point the blaze morphed into a “firenado”—a skyscraper-high vortex of flame.

Photographer Robert Beck captured this ominous—and fast-moving—plume of smoke on May 14th as it moved toward golfers on the driving range of the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, California.

On May 20th, Jayson Coil took this photograph of the fire that was rapidly making its way through the canyon just north of Slide Rock, the namesake landmark of an Arizona state park not far from the popular tourist destination of Sedona. As of this writing, the so-called Slide fire had covered nearly 32 square miles and was only 35 percent contained.

Three days later, Coil returned to take this spectacular—albeit hellish—night-time photograph of Slide Rock.

On May 24th, Brian Looney photographed homeowners ferrying food and valuables away from their cabin on Alaska’s Kenai River as the Funny River fire encroached. As of May 27th, the fire had consumed more than 182,000 acres in and around the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Walking through woods near the shores of the Upper Killey River on May 24th, photographer Loren Holmes saw this smoldering stump: a vestige of the devastation visited upon the area one day earlier, when the Funny River fire passed through.

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image of Gail Henry
Gail Henry is OnEarth's photo editor. She was previously the dIrector of photography for Yahoo Internet Life and has worked for other national magazines, including Golf, Men's Health, and Sports Illustrated. MORE STORIES ➔