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

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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.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 We continue our series covering climate now on midday edition and this week, KPBS has been joining hundreds of news organizations from across the globe to bring home the realities of a warming planet. Over the past decade, the California Army National Guard has been spending more money and sending more people to fight wildfires. KPBS military reporter Steve Walsh went out with major Robert Langston who was finding the climate changes among the factors causing his civilian job to merge with his guard duty

Speaker 2: 00:32 major. Robert Langston is originally from Puerto Rico. He's lived in San Diego for 12 years to be near his civilian job with the forestry service inside the Cleveland National Forest. In August, he was in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Fresno, part of a guard task force. At times it feels like fire is all around him. Like the 2013 chariot fire, which came close to where his family lives in Pine Valley.

Speaker 3: 00:56 It's exhausting work. Uh, you're working therefore, but, but at some point and you see, you realize, oh, this fire is going to get close to where I work or where I live. And, and you know, just in your back of your mind, only you're worried about working, but you're worried about your families. And now, okay, so now I gotta start worrying my family. Most of the polices that we fight fire, we don't have signal. So it's a lot of, you know, fun and all over, you know, firefighters all over dead California. I mean, they is the same all the time. You, you're working in, but you've got to work out your family.

Speaker 2: 01:25 The Cherry had fire burned through 7,000 acres east of San Diego over the years. Langston has helped fight several fires as an assistant fire engine operator this year. He's leaving operation rattlesnakes,

Speaker 4: 01:39 [inaudible],

Speaker 5: 01:39 California National Guard effort to clear the brush that fuels fires.

Speaker 4: 01:44 Right.

Speaker 3: 01:44 The level of support has been increasing. We are providing more support to, uh, especially while on fire. So from a firefighter perspective, I mean, you know, for whatever reason, yeah. Fires are getting more and more intense. Yeah.

Speaker 2: 01:56 In fiscal year 2013 the California national guard build the state and federal governments less than $6 million to send mainly guard air crews to fight fires. So far this year, the California Guard has received over $34 million.

Speaker 5: 02:11 Most of that money is for personnel troops on the ground to fight alongside cal fire

Speaker 4: 02:19 [inaudible]

Speaker 5: 02:19 for the first time, guard members are working year round to prevent fires. Major Langston, it has a task force. The 100 guardsman we're spending the year clearing brush and felling dead trees, including in this.

Speaker 2: 02:30 Sierra is outside of Fresno.

Speaker 4: 02:31 No,

Speaker 2: 02:36 the Meza specialist with the Army National Guard grew up not too far away from these mountains.

Speaker 5: 02:41 I think that in the past couple of years the fires have just been getting worse and worse and this has been needed for a long time and the fact that they're, they're putting us into play is, is something that's been needed for a while.

Speaker 2: 02:52 After a year of devastating wildfires, California governor Gavin Newsome called up the guard to help build these around the state. The 2018 campfire killed 86 people and destroyed more than 13,000 homes, most in the town of Paradise, Ramen, Ramen auth. And a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography says the guard can expect the wildfire risk associated with climate change to increase.

Speaker 6: 03:17 So the fire season is expanding because the planet is getting warmer. What was spring before is becoming like summer temperatures, right? And since it's happening throughout the year, the, the trees are drying out. So when the fire happens, it's preds

Speaker 5: 03:43 major Langston oversees his national guard crew. The crew was looking for so-called widowmakers dead limbs that could drop on firefighters felling dead trees that can transfer the fire to the tree tops, which are called the forest canopy. And out of the reach of firefighters on the ground

Speaker 3: 04:00 or a human being can only fight a fire, a certain amount of flame height. I mean, when you get into canopy fires, I mean, it's an amazing spectacle because sometimes you can see the canopy burning while under the trees. There's no, there's no ground fire and is right. A rapid rate of spread. I mean, and he's intense. You know,

Speaker 5: 04:16 critics question the practicality of building firebreaks around the state saying they would not have stopped a fast moving fire like the inferno that decimated paradise. Regardless, it's safe to bet that climate change means guard troops will continue to be pressed into new roles. Steve Walsh KPBS News,

Speaker 7: 04:35 aside from responding to climate change driven disasters, the u s armed forces will also be directly impacted by climate change. Joining us by Skype to discuss how climate change will affect the u s military is John Congar, director of the center for climate and security. And Jon, welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. What are some of the key areas where a changing climate may impact military operations? Well, uh, I think that there's several. One is we can talk about infrastructure. Uh, the climate change has a direct impact on dod infrastructure, which is in a whole host of, uh, different climate zones. Uh, money, uh, installations on the coast will be affected by sea level rise and flooding. Uh, others may be affected by drought and wildfire. We've had to evacuate bases because of hurricanes and extreme weather because of flooding. And because of wildfire.

Speaker 7: 05:30 And so that's one piece of the puzzle. Another is the fact that, uh, we'll have new missions as a result of climate change. The Arctic ice is melting, and so that gives the an entirely new ocean to patrol. Climate change can create instability in parts of the world that were at least a little bit stable and create situations where our forces will have to go to deploy. Uh, so the range of impacts from climate change is vast. You're talk about the infrastructure, the military infrastructure threatened a case in point camp lose June in North Carolinas is still struggling to recover from flooding from a hurricane last year. Is there any add estimate as to how many other military installations might be threatened in a similar fashion? Well, it's hard to predict in any given year, which base is going to be affected by extreme weather. But in the last year alone, uh, you had camp last June that took about three and a half billion dollars worth of damage.

Speaker 7: 06:32 You had Tyndall air force base, which is going to cost, which was nearly leveled by a hurricane and it's gonna cost about $5 billion to recover, uh, record flooding in Nebraska affected off at air force base and that's going to cost another billion dollars to recover it. And that was all just in the last year. How about the type of equipment training and gear military personnel may need if, let's say day they're deployed to deserts that are hotter than ever or areas of the world facing more severe storms and flooding is the military planning for that. So I think that it's important to recognize that we have had a history of deploying to different climate zones, whether it's in the jungle, in Vietnam or in the desert of Iraq. The troops adapt their equipment to the scenario they're going to go to. And that is less about climate changes as much as climate and in various parts of the world you might deploy too.

Speaker 7: 07:31 But in those places, if you hit extremes and in particular, you know, the Middle East and the high temperatures that that are hitting there, that has an impact on equipment, planes do not fly as well when, when it is hot and humid. We've seen that in Phoenix where planes were, flights had to get canceled because of the high heat. That effect certainly impacts operations in the Middle East. Now it's, it's seems as you went down the key areas where climate change could impact military operations, that there's also the anticipation that climate change will be the cause of future conflicts. Yes. And I think that it's important to recognize that climate change affects stability and it is by definition something that disrupts any sort of stability that you have. And so as we see a water scarcity, food insecurity, uh, sea level rise, uh, on, in coastal areas, and there's a lot of people that live in coastal areas around the world.

Speaker 7: 08:31 This disrupts their norms and causes migration, causes a conflict over scarce resources. Violent extremist groups take advantage of this either to recruit, saying, hey, I have resources. Come and, and join me or to, uh, you know, impose themselves on vulnerable populations. Now the military is apparently responding to the need to prepare for climate change, but the Trump administration continues to downplay and reject the threat of climate change. How does that affect the military's preparations when the Albany wants to do something that your boss doesn't want you to do, but the military has a unique perspective in that they are completely focused on mission and they have continued to focus on mission and their ability to, to protect the country through multiple administrations. And so in the Obama administration, which wanted to emphasize climate change, the military said, yeah, well we'll do that. We'll, we'll come, we'll concern ourselves with emissions or, or that sort of thing.

Speaker 7: 09:36 But we're going to do it in the context of mission where we save energy or where we save costs. Um, and the emissions reductions would be a co-benefit cause they were focused on their mission. Well, this administration comes along and says, you know, you don't have to worry about climate change. Well then the military says, well, okay, I appreciate the fact that you aren't telling, you're not, you're telling us that we don't have to, but we're going to anyway because it affects our ability to do our mission. And so in some ways that they make the peaks smaller, uh, it is a more stable way forward as they focus not on politics or what their, how the political winds go, but on how they're going to be able to do their job in the future. That is clearly affected by climate change. And that's where their brain is at. I've been speaking with John Congar, director of the center for climate and security. John, thanks very much for speaking with us. Thanks for having me.

Speaker 4: 10:33 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.