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Wildfires in the U.S. and Their Effects on Security

Satellite view of smoke plumes produced by 2020 California wildfires, September 9, taken from the GOES-17 weather satellite

By Dr. Marc Kodack

Wildfires are burning across multiple states in the U.S. For Washington, Oregon, and California, these fires are having devastating consequences for tens of millions of people and their communities. The fires have resulted in at least 33 deaths, destruction or damage to a broad ranges of properties, acres and acres of burned forests, and significant disruption to other natural resources. Indeed, over 4.6 million acres have burned in the three states. Their respective governors have each requested additional fire fighting crews from elsewhere in the U.S. or from other countries. In California alone, 16,000 firefighters are working to contain 29 major wildfires across the state. Oregon’s Governor Brown has requested assistance from the Department of Defense to send a battalion of firefighters. Many of the requests from states for additional firefighting assistance go to the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group. However, hundreds of these requests are unfilled.

Both National Guard (see here and here) and active-duty ground and air units with their equipment have deployed to multiple states (see here, here and here) to fight wildfires. For example, 233 Soldiers from the 14th Brigade Engineer Battalion stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, are supporting firefighting efforts related to the August Complex fire in California, located northwest of the city of Sacramento (see here and here).

Multiple areas are being affected by the Dolan Fire including Fort Hunter Liggett, which is located south of Monterey, California. Firefighters have contained approximately 40% of the fire, preventing it from reaching the Fort’s cantonment area. In August, the LNU Lightning Complex fire affected five counties in California, including Travis Air Force Base. At the time, the base ordered all non-mission essential personnel to evacuate the base. This complex of fires are now more than 96% contained after being active for 26 days across 326,000 acres. Also in August areas on Yakima Training Center, Washington, and the surrounding county were affected by an almost 35,000 acre wildfire.

Smoke (also here) from the wildfires in the western U.S., especially in Washington, Oregon, and California, have created some of the worst air quality conditions anywhere in the world on certain days. The smoke covers entire states and their populations. It is drifting north into coastal, western Canada and over the Pacific Ocean off the U.S.’s west coast. Smoke can have severe health effects including chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes, and breathing problems.

There have been power outages associated with specific wildfires. For example, Pacific Gas & Electric issued a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) on September 10, 2020, across 22 counties in northern California, that resulted in 150,000 people losing their power. A PSPS occurs when an electric utility provider, such as PG&E, peremptorily shuts off power when fire risk is high to prevent their electrical equipment from starting a fire. PG&E was reacting to the North Complex-West Zone fire that had burned 77,000 acres in Butte County. The fire has grown to almost 259,000 acres across two counties. It is only 26% contained. Pacific Power in northern California, issued a PSPS on September 13, 2020, that would affect 2,500 customers in Weed, California. Although there are no active wildfires in the area, high winds, low humidity, and extreme drought are present which create excellent fire conditions. In Oregon, high winds and weather increased the extent of an existing wildfire. At its’ peak, over 23,000 customers were without power. There are other outages created by wildfires in Oregon affecting tens of thousands of customers. Some of these outages were a result of a PSPS issued by Portland General Electric. In eastern Washington, 60,000 people were without power because of wind and fire.

Millions of people are affected by multiple variables connected to the current wildfires. There are the direct effects including fire causing death to people, petslivestock, and an unknown number of wild animals, destruction of property, such as houses, vehicles, other infrastructure, as well as natural vegetation, and fire creating its’ own local weather conditions that can cause damage from additional wind and lightning. Indirect effects include degradation in air quality from smoke that spreads across thousands of miles effecting both local and non-local communities. Layered on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, this poor air quality may exacerbate susceptibility to catching the SARS-CoV-2 virus or may prolong recovery. Power disruptions, either planned or unplanned, may further damage certain individual’s health if outside air temperatures are high and air conditioning is unavailable when needed/desired because of the lack of available power. For wildfire survivors, mental health may be adversely affected. Some may have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression requiring formal treatment. It may take years before someone is able to adapt.

For the military, the direct and indirect effects of wildfire can degrade or disrupt operational readiness across multiple locations in the western U.S. While no installations or their associated facilities and infrastructure are yet directly affected by any of the on-going wildfires, there is still some risk at Fort Hunter Liggett (FHL). Loss of facilities at FHL would affect missions and operations for some amount of time depending on the extent of the damage. All field training has been canceled with the possibility of any Soldiers who were training at FHL to be relocated to Camp Roberts, California. The loss of training may be temporary. It may then need to be rescheduled at some future date bumping other activities off the schedule on the presumption that the training occurring now would have already been successfully completed. The small wildfire at Yakima Training Center may or may not have disrupted training there. Disruptions at Travis Air Force Base probably were minimal if the non-mission essential personnel who were evacuated were able to work from a remote site.

The indirect effects of these current wildfires are probably more significant. The extensive smoke affects every installation in Washington, Oregon, and California. Any outdoor activities, particularly training, would be postponed because of the poor air quality and its’ health implications. High, record-setting air temperatures that occurred in California earlier in August, when coupled with wildfire smoke, would increase physical stresses to units in training.

Another indirect effect is redirecting units from their primary mission to wildfire fighting. The 14th Brigade Engineer Battalion (BEB) that has 233 personnel fighting a fire in California is a combat engineer unit. It is a subordinate unit to the 2-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The 23d Brigade Engineer Battalion, also at Joint-Base Lewis McChord rotates with the 14th BEB to deploy for wildfire fighting. The 23rd recently fought wildfires in Oregon. Both units train to fight wildfires. The 23rd BEB is part of the 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Once these units are deployed to fight wildfires, it is unclear how quickly they could be recalled if they are needed to provide their assigned combat engineer function to their assigned Stryker Brigade Combat Team. It is also unclear how transferable wildfire-fighting skills are to their engineer mission. While these two Army units provide mostly labor and limited equipment, the different National Guard Airlift Wings provide labor and air assets, such as air tankers, that are diverted from their primary military missions. The opportunity cost to a unit’s primary mission of being deployed to fight wildfires has not been determined. It could lessen the unit’s readiness and availability if the response to a wildfire is unplanned when a military emergency somewhere in the world emerges that requires that unit to deploy to address that emergency.

Although the exact number of all military personnel that are deployed to fight fires is unknown, it is at least in the hundreds. There may be sufficient alternative personnel and equipment that are available to meet military emergencies somewhere in the world that these wildfire-deployed units do not create challenges for operational planners. But, there may not be if multiple military emergencies arise simultaneously because of the underlying climate change effects on wildfires and other variables around the world including drought, and coastal and riverine flooding that further degrade existing social and economic systems in fragile societies and states, such as Yemen and South Sudan.

The western U.S., including the west coast, has recently experienced high temperatures and severe drought potentially caused or at least influenced by climate change. These conditions dry out vegetation. Dry vegetation coupled with forest management practices that have left large volumes of this dry fuel on the forest floor creates ideal wildfire conditions. With thousands of dry lightning strikes igniting this fuel, joined with the increased wind because of storms, wildfires have proliferated. The future does not hold any relief as forecasted climate conditions will worsen droughts and further increase temperatures. There may be no gap between when one wildfire season ends and the next begins. There may be constant burning somewhere in the U.S.

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.

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