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The National Guard turns to firefighting amid worsening climate change

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hawaii's lieutenant governor has called the deadly fires on Maui unprecedented, but wildfires fueled by climate change have become a familiar threat to many Americans in the Western U.S. What used to be called a fire season has now become a fire year. After several record-breaking years in a row, California has turned to its National Guard and created a permanent task force to fight and prevent forest fires. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports it's a sign of the strain climate change is putting on the National Guard across the country.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Not far from Nevada City, Calif., a crew from the National Guard's Task Force Rattlesnake is setting up for a day's work on an old logging road that smells of red cedar and damp earth. First thing they do is turn their cars around, facing back down the road in case they have to race out to a wildfire. Then they unpack their axes and chainsaws. Captain Eric Ayers of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Cal Fire, gives a safety briefing.

ERIC AYERS: Next hazard today, guys, as we continue our safety briefing. Since we're going to have four saws running, as we all know, maintain your distance.

LAWRENCE: It's been a mercifully quiet year so far thanks to some well-timed rainfall. So today it's prevention, dragging out dead wood that could fuel a fire and cutting down ladder trees, short 10- or 20-footers that could help a fire climb up to the giant cedars and ponderosa pines that seem to touch the sky. Where you might see brush, Captain Ayers sees kindling.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW BUZZING)

AYERS: If we were to have fire in here today without this fuel reduction being done, it would be too intense. The fire would be too intense. This fire behavior that we'd get in here - it's going to go right from the surface, and it's going to ladder up these trees, and all the timber in here is going to be fully consumed.

LAWRENCE: His grandfather logged these woods. Centuries before that, Native Americans did controlled burns to keep the forest healthy. But now after decades without either and with houses built further and further into the woods, Ayers says the job is urgent and endless across California.

AYERS: It's kind of like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You do the initial paint. You get to one end, and you got to go back and redo it.

LAWRENCE: CAL FIRE used to rely on prison inmates for fire lines, which involved a lot more supervision. With a Task Force Rattlesnake guardsman, it's a military operation with a practiced chain of command.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Just go in, through your back cut. And then it should fall right where you want it to go. All right? But - and that's good. Back cut - tree going down the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW RUMBLING)

LAWRENCE: And they can mentor each other as they reopen this grown-over access road, making it a firebreak which would slow any blaze from running up this hill to the homes above. Guardsman Brett Carl is giving his teammates some tips.

BRETT CARL: Look where you're back - look where you're going in. You're below your gun. You're right at your gun cut. That's a little too high. Two inches.

LAWRENCE: Most of these men are qualified to take down trees a bit smaller than a telephone pole. Carl will soon qualify for bigger ones.

CARL: I love training all the new guys. Like, I'm still a new guy myself, but I still love training what I've learned in a short amount of time to the guys that have been here for 2 or 3 months.

LAWRENCE: Before this, Carl spent two years in the Guard working at COVID sites, which had its own risks. This job is more like what he signed up for.

CARL: It's manly, right? Like, you can't get more manly than that (laughter). No, it's - I feel better about myself mentally, physically every day once we get out here running the chainsaw.

LAWRENCE: California Governor Gavin Newsom stood up the task force in late 2019 to help with what turned into an apocalyptic year. More than 8,000 fires destroyed 4.3 million acres in 2020. California realized this might be the new normal, says Sergeant Carl Trujillo.

CARL TRUJILLO: In the past, they could depend on the National Guard to step up when they were called on and help fill any gaps. But as climate change has taken hold and changed fire behavior, there's been a need to lean forward more proactively.

LAWRENCE: That helps with the strain after COVID emergencies, civil unrest around the country and the Guard's regular overseas deployments, says Trujillo.

TRUJILLO: The crew we're with today - they've lost several people temporarily to deployments. We've got folks in the Middle East.

LAWRENCE: And climate change disasters are straining Guard troops nationwide, not just in California.

ERIN SIKORSKY: In 2021, the National Guard spent 172,000 personnel days fighting fires, compared to about 18,000 personnel days in 2019.

LAWRENCE: Erin Sikorsky served on the National Intelligence Council and is now director of the Center for Climate and Security. She tracks how climate is engaging military forces worldwide, including the National Guard, who also get called up when the country's at war.

SIKORSKY: Many of those same troops are the ones that would be called upon in case of a conflict. And so there would be a challenge there if they were being deployed at the levels they have been in recent years domestically and needed on the front lines.

LAWRENCE: Not all states can afford to spend billions each year like California has to set up the 14 crews on Task Force Rattlesnake. And an added benefit is that some of these guardsmen see the task force as a transition to working with Cal Fire, like Jaleel Brown, who was in the Guard for nine years.

JALEEL BROWN: I was on my way out of the military, and I was told about this opportunity - come do some firefighting stuff.

LAWRENCE: Three years in, he loves the job, in part because it's more of a normal job than being a soldier - he goes home to his family in Sacramento every night - except on the days when it's not a normal job.

BROWN: My first fire was Jones Bar - the Jones Bar Road. That fire was crazy.

LAWRENCE: It was August of 2020, only a few weeks after he joined.

BROWN: And I raised my hand and said, I'll do it.

LAWRENCE: The fire burned 705 acres, and it took 11 days to contain.

BROWN: And I didn't know I was getting myself into. And that - that's probably our craziest fire we've ever had here. And I was - you had to ask the captain, like, hey; this is how every fire is? They're like, no, this one is different. It was very hot. We had to hike into the fire. We ended up at the bottom of the drainage. We had to cut uphill.

LAWRENCE: Cutting - that is, chain sawing a wide firebreak up a steep river gulch, 24-hour shifts. Men would take turns laying down to sleep as they could. And then after all that work, the fire jumped their line, meaning it blew across the road they'd just cut and started burning all around them.

BROWN: And by the time we got towards the end of the cutting line, the fire jumped the line, and it was all along the cut - was just out of there. It was done. So we legit had to run uphill and, like, make it out - make it off the fire line before the fire got over to us.

LAWRENCE: Running for their lives to a black area where the fire had already burned up everything. Brown was scared.

BROWN: It was fear in me. Yeah. It was fear in me. But Captain assured us that we were good, and we were all like, OK, it's good - as long as we all made it. Yes, we had great leadership.

LAWRENCE: Almost everyone on this crew has a story like that from the past three years - the moment they realized the massive destructive power of wildfires. Jaleel Brown says he's proud to be on the front lines defending Californians from these fires, which are expected to be a permanent threat as the planet keeps warming. Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Nevada City, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLYING LOTUS' "FF4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.

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