Wildfires cast a shadow over California's summer

  • A firefighter lights a backfire as the Rocky Fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., on Aug. 3, 2015. The fire has charred more than 60,000 acres and destroyed at least 24 residences.
  • A long exposure picture shows a backfire in an attempt to battle the so-called Rocky fire near Clearlake Oaks, Calif., Aug. 3, 2015. Earlier in the day, wind gusts caused flying embers from a backfire to cross Highway 20 allowing the Rocky fire to spread. Storm systems that deliver lightning but no rain caused havoc across drought-plagued California, officials said. An estimated 12,000 people have been evacuated or warned to be prepared to leave in the residential area west of the largest blaze in northern California, media reported.
  • Firefighters douse a backfire while battling the Rocky fire near Clearlake, Calif., Aug. 3, 2015.
  • A helicopter prepares to drop water on the Rocky fire near Clearlake Oaks, Calif., Aug. 3, 2015.
  • Flames from a backfire operation burn through a grove of trees as firefighters try to head off the Rocky Fire on August 3, 2015 near Clearlake, Calif.
  • Cal Fire Captain Josh Kitchens fires a flare gun to ignite a backfire while battling the Rocky fire near Clearlake, Calif., on Aug. 2, 2015. The fire, one of dozens raging in drought parched Northern California, has destroyed 24 residences and scorched 47,000 acres according to Cal Fire. At least one death has been confirmed as thousands of firefighters battled to contain rapidly spreading blazes in northern California, where 12,000 people were ordered to evacuate.
  • An air tanker drops fire retardant to keep the Rocky fire from jumping Highway 20 near Clearlake, Calif., Aug. 2, 2015.
  • Firefighters monitor the Rocky fire near Clearlake, Calif., Aug. 2, 2015.
  • A firefighter lights a backfire while battling the Rocky fire near Clearlake, Calif., Aug. 2, 2015. 
  • Cal Fire firefighters prepare to use a flare to start a backfire ahead of the Rocky Fire on Aug. 2, 2015 near Clearlake, Calif.
  • A firefighter helps ignite a backfire while battling the Rocky fire near Clearlake, Calif., on Aug. 2, 2015.
  • A firefighting air tanker flies in front of the setting sun while battling the Rocky Fire on Aug. 1, 2015 near Clearlake, Calif.
  • Firefighters watch as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., Aug. 1, 2015.
  • Goats run away from their pen after firefighters freed them as the Rocky Fire approaches on July 31, 2015 in Lower Lake, Calif.
  • The Rocky fire spreads down a hillside near Clearlake, Calif., on Aug. 1, 2015.
  • Firefighters watch as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., Aug. 1, 2015.
  • Firefighters spray a hose at a fire along Morgan Valley Road near Lower Lake, Calif., July 31, 2015. A series of wildfires were intensified by dry vegetation, triple-digit temperatures and gusting winds.
  • A view of an area that was charred by the Rocky Fire on July 31, 2015 in Lower Lake, Calif.
  • Firefighters watch the Rocky Fire advance in Lake County, Calif., July 30, 2015. The Rocky Fire broke out on Wednesday afternoon in Lake County, 110 miles north of San Francisco. By Thursday morning it had spread to 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares), according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
  • Firefighters race to battle a spot fire at the Rocky Fire in Lake County, Calif., July 30, 2015. 
  • The Rocky Fire burns through a fence line in Lake County, Calif., July 30, 2015.
  • Firefighters work to dig a fire line on the Rocky Fire in Lake County, Calif., July 30, 2015.
  • A firefighter watches for spot fires at the Rocky Fire in Lake County, Calif., July 30, 2015.

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Described as “unprecedented” by authorities, the largest wildfire in flame-bitten California leaped a highway on Monday, sending plumes of smoke and burning embers into the sky, and defying the best efforts to contain it.

Two massive C-130 Hercules airplanes from the Air Force Reserves will soon join a mission to squelch the blaze with thousands of gallons of air-dropped water, according NBC Bay Area. But the so-called Rocky Lake fire, north of San Francisco, was less than 15% contained as of Tuesday morning.

Since the weekend, it has chewed through 62,000 acres, doubling in size and forcing more than 13,000 people from there homes. It’s one of dozens of wildfires scouring the state this summer in what may go down as the worst fire season on record.

More than 20 of the fires are considered “large,” defined as more than 10,000 acres. California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Friday in an effort to contain the situation. Officials have said that more than 9,000 firefighters are on the front lines, some starting controlled burns in an effort to rob the larger, rampaging flames of the fuel they need to continue. 

Related: Haunting images of the Blue Creek Wildfire in Washington

They hoped to use Highway 20 — a major road north of the city of Clearlake – to contain the Rocky Lake fire. But the wind picked up, blowing embers over the line and igniting new blazes on the other side of the asphalt. 

“It has a mind of its own,” Cal Fire spokesman Jason Shanley told NBC Bay Area.

Although the Rocky Lake fire has engulfed two-dozen homes, and threatened 6,000 more buildings amid dusty, blustery conditions, no injuries have been reported. 

Those working to quell the fires weren’t so fortunate. Statewide more than 2,000 firefighters and 6,000 support personnel are battling 20 additional large fires—not to mention hundreds of smaller blazes—stretching from San Diego to the Oregon line.

At the so-called Frog Fire, about an hour’s drive from the northern border, a fire fighter died Saturday, according to the U.S. Forest Service. No details were released, pending an investigation. 

Many of the California fires were sparked by lightning, a threat expected to intensify as the National Weather Service issued a new warning for at least one county on Monday. Gov. Brown pointed a finger squarely at climate change in a statement on Saturday. “California’s severe drought and extreme weather have turned much of the state into a tinderbox,” he said.

In fact, much of the western United States and as far north as Alaska is dealing with one of the worst fire seasons on record. In Alaska, the fires have eaten through an area that’s larger than the state of Connecticut. Even the moss-covered forests of Washington state have been lit by multiple large-scale conflagrations.

One fire took a savage swipe through a lush section of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Another inferno blew through a 10 mile stretch in the southeastern part of the state, near Walla Walla.

“No single factor – not climate, not fuel, not ignition – is the driver,” Arizona state professor Stephen Pyne, an academic fire expert, told msnbc. “Fire more resembles a driverless car barreling down the road and synthesizing all the inputs around it.”

Still, the fires in California and elsewhere could be a new normal. Modern fire seasons already include seven times as many 10,000-plus acre fires as the average year in the 1970s, according to a think tank called Climate Central. The planet has been enveloped by hotter, drier “fire weather,” according to another recent study, co-authored by a scientist from the U.S. Forest Service.

That has extended the burn season almost 20% worldwide since 1979. In the U.S., meanwhile, the number of fires could double again by 2050, the data show.

“We’ve been playing catch up,” Pyne said. “Now all the needles point in the wrong direction. They point to larger fires, more severe burning, and basically a fire scene that is out of our control.”

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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