A Growing Threat For Military Bases In California And Beyond: Wildfires Driven By Climate Change

An aircraft drops fire retardant during a fire, Sept. 20, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Photo credit U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Shane Phipps)

The fire is violent and fast-moving. It's rushing uphill and tearing through the dense, dry chaparral that covers some of the 100,000 acres of Vandenberg Airforce Base.

"Let's go! Go!" screams a firefighter as waves of embers blast his truck. Day turns to night as black smoke covers the sun, engulfing him and his colleagues as they hurry back to their safe zone roughly 600 yards away.

It's Sept. 19, 2016, two days into the Canyon Fire.

California is suffering through one of its worst droughts in recorded history, with record high temperatures to boot. And the fire offers a clear view of the state's climate future: hot, dry and ready to burn.

What was happening on Vandenberg wasn't much different than elsewhere across the state that summer, but it was complicated by the fact that it was taking place on a military base.

Ordnance, chemical storage, and buildings crucial to national security weren't far from the blaze. In fact, a little over a mile away there was an Atlas V rocket ready to launch.

"Having a rocket fully loaded on a pad, fully fueled, that's a pucker factor," said Chief Mark Farias, a 20-year veteran of the Vandenberg Fire Department.

A GROWING CONCERN

Wildfires exacerbated by climate change are a growing concern for the Department of Defense as they pose a threat to military installations around the world.

A 2019 document titled, "Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense," doesn't mince words.

"The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue," it begins.

"DOD must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of a variety of threats and conditions, including those from weather and natural events. To that end, DOD factors in the effects of the environment into its mission planning and execution to build resilience."

The Pentagon report looked at 72 bases around the world and assessed the sorts of climate change-related threats they're exposed to, be it droughts, flooding, desertification and wildfires.

It said that half of the bases should consider wildfires an issue. And that's a number that is expected to grow by seven more bases over the next 20 years. Why? Because the climate is continuing to change.

Officials note they already are seeing the effects.

"You know we just had a huge fire this summer in Alaska ... which was really problematic," said Maureen Sullivan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment. "You wouldn't think of Alaska as a wildfire risk, but that tells you how the wildfire situation is changing."

Talking about the bases, she said "they have to take into consideration a changing climate."

FIRST STEP: ASSESSING RISK

To take those changes into consideration, Sullivan said the Defense Department has provided tools for each base to:

  • Determine the degree of exposure to changing climate conditions
  • Determine the capacity to adapt
  • Draft what are known as integrated natural resources management plans

For instance — the DOD has developed a series of guidelines that can help bases figure out proper wildfire monitoring, how to address fuel management and how to determine if certain parts of the base might be vulnerable to smoke or fire.

There are practical things that bases are doing right now, including clearing vegetation, especially with controlled burns, though some bases are limited by local laws.

They're also partnering with local, state and national fire agencies.

The Canyon Fire burns on Sept. 18, 2016 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Col. Michael Wulfestieg/U.S. Air Force via AP)

That 2016 fire at Vandenberg? Farias said when the fire was burning out of control, outside resources made the difference.

The fire chief, whose department has won Air Force awards for excellence, said getting help from other fire departments marked the turning point.

In the end, the Canyon Fire only burned 12,500 acres, relatively reasonable for a California wildfire. But Farias said it showed why his base needs better brush management, more people and more money.

"We haven't gained resources even though... it's drier, even though things have gotten worse, we're actually less people, less resourced. And so that has an impact. That means that things are going to get worse before they get better sometimes," he said.

Like other folks in California and much of the country, he knows the next big fire is right around the corner.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the rocket that was delayed was Delta II. It was an Atlas V rocket. LAist regrets the error.