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San Diego’s Climate Crisis: How Heightened Wildfire Risk Is Altering The Work Of California’s National Guard

This story is part of #CoveringClimateNow, an effort by more than 220 news organizations worldwide to bring about a greater understanding of the real-time impacts of climate change.

Members of the California National Guard work alongside CalFire outside Fresn...

Photo by Steve Walsh

Above: Members of the California National Guard work alongside CalFire outside Fresno, August 30, 2019

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Members of the California National Guard have always had a role in fighting wildfires, but now there is a task force working year-round on fire prevention efforts.

Aired: September 18, 2019 | Transcript

California Army National Guard Maj. Robert Langston is finding that climate change is causing his civilian job to merge with his guard duties.

Langston lives in San Diego County near his civilian job with the U.S. Forestry Service inside the Cleveland National Forest. In August, he was in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains near Fresno, leading a new guard effort to slow the progress of wildfires.

He feels at times like fire is consuming his life — in 2013, the Chariot fire, which consumed 7,000 acres in San Diego County, came close to his family home in Pine Valley.

“It’s exhausting work,” Langston said. “But at some point you see, you realize, this fire is going to get close to where I work, or where I live. And, you know, somewhere in the back of your mind you’re not only worried about working, you worried about your family. So OK, know I'm going to have to start worrying about my family.”

Fighting fires is nothing new to Langston, who is an assistant fire engine operator with the forestry service. And this year, he’s leading Operation Rattlesnake, which is a California National Guard effort to clear the brush that fuels fires.

RELATED: KPBS Climate Crisis Series

“Our level of support has been increasing,” he said. “We’ve been providing more and more support, especially to wildland fires. From a fire fighting standpoint fires are getting more and more intense.”

Over the last decade, the California Guard has seen a steady increase in the amount of money it receives from the federal government to fight wildfires. In fiscal year 2013, it received $5.8 million, according to figures released by the guard. That number jumped to $34.5 in the current fiscal year as the guard is providing more troops on the ground to fight alongside Cal Fire crews, said Lt. Col. Tom Keegan, a California Guard spokesman.

This year, for the first time, members of the guard are working year-round to help prevent fires. Maj. Langston is leading a task force of 100 troops who are spending the year clearing brush and felling dead trees, including in the Sierra’s outside Fresno.

Anthony Meza, a specialist in the Army National Guard, grew up not too far away from these mountains.

“I think in the past couple years the fires have just been getting worse and worse," Meza said. "This has been needed for a long time and the fact that they are putting us into play is something that has been needed for a while.”

Reported by Steve Walsh , Video by Matthew Bowler

The work Langston's crew is doing to build firebreaks is part of a CalFire plan put in place after the 2018 Camp Fire. That fire, the deadliest in state history, killed 86 people and destroyed more than 13,000 homes, mostly in the town of Paradise.

RELATED: San Diego's Climate Crisis: The Risks And Costs Of Living In The Backcountry

Some question the practicality of building firebreaks around the state, saying that clearing brush would not have stopped a fast-moving fire like the inferno that decimated Paradise. Regardless, the guard can expect the wildfire risk associated with climate change to increase, said Ram Ramanathan, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“The fire season is expanding because the planet is getting warmer,” he said. “and since it’s happening throughout the year. The trees are drying out, so when a fire happens, it spreads.”

Despite this reality, people are still building in the fire-prone backcountry. New homes were under construction along the mountain road in the Sierras outside of Fresno, where Langston oversees his national guard crew.

The crew is looking for so-called widowmakers — dead limbs that could drop on a firefighter. These not only burn quickly but can transfer the fire into the treetops, which are called the forest’s canopy, and out of the reach of firefighters on the ground.

“A human being can only fight a fire at a certain amount of flame height,” Langston said. “When you get into canopy fires, it’s an amazing spectacle. Sometimes you can see the canopy burning, while sometimes there is no ground fire. And it’s a rapid rate of spread and it’s intense.”

Langston was actually in Baghdad when the Camp Fire broke out. He watched the blaze from Iraq.

“It not only affects military personnel,” he said. “It affects firefighters, taking people away from their families.”

Instead of settling in at home to San Diego County, after his deployment, he accepted this assignment overseeing Operation Rattlesnake from Sacramento. For now, Langston’s family has relocated with him.

Listen to this story by Steve Walsh.

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