States across the American West have deployed hundreds of members of the National Guard and military hardware to help battle raging wildfires that are getting worse each year, part of an increasing trend of militaries being drawn into responding to natural disasters that are getting more frequent and more extreme each year.
A global problem. The United States isn’t alone. Russia deployed the military to contain wildfires scorching Siberia in July. As Lebanon grappled with wildfires that began to spread into Syria, it also brought in Air Force helicopters and Lebanese military units—to mixed results.
Turkey and Greece are also battling devastating wildfires amid an unprecedented heat wave that has seen the highest temperatures ever recorded in Europe. Meanwhile, over 1,000 German troops and 200 military vehicles were deployed to respond to unprecedented flooding last month.
Experts say the trends show how militaries will increasingly be forced into the business of disaster response to a level they haven’t seen before. (Even Reaper drones have been deployed to the wildfire fights in recent years.)
The National Guard response. So far, over 770 National Guard soldiers and airmen have been deployed to help battle the raging fires across eight states in the American West. There have been over 38,200 fires that have burned a total of 3.2 million acres across 14 states so far this year, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center—leaving U.S. firefighting crews thinly stretched and states calling on military resources to back them up.
By the numbers. Also in the fight are four UH-60 Black Hawks, two CH-47 Chinooks, and one UH-72 Lakota helicopter, according to a National Guard spokesperson. But wildfire season isn’t projected to peak until mid-August, so more hardware is available to support them: 211 Black Hawks, 58 Chinooks, four C-130s equipped with airborne firefighting systems, and eight Reconnaissance Cargo RC-26 aircraft are available, the spokesperson said.
“We are continually evaluating and evolving our readiness,” Brig. Gen. Nick Ducich, vice director of operations for the National Guard, told SitRep by email. “Understanding the weather trends affecting wildfires, we’ve been preparing since March,” he said, including training and exercises “to meet the needs of states plagued by dry conditions.”
A “perfect storm.” Fueled by human activity and climate change, which has contributed to high temperatures and dryness, this year’s wildfires are some of the most intense to hit the West. “It’s kind of a perfect storm of human-created circumstances and conditions,” said Stephanie Pincetl, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who noted that humans ignite over half of wildfires—and exacerbate their effects by burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases, among other actions.
“We’ve built in places we shouldn’t be building, we have done a century of fire suppression, and we’re causing the climate to change, so there’s nothing that you would call quote-unquote natural about the situation.”
Shock and aw-ful. Things are only projected to get worse, increasing the burden on the U.S. military and states’ national guards. “We used to talk about fire season,” Chief of the National Guard Bureau Daniel Hokanson told reporters last month, as Defense One’s Tara Copp reported. “It’s really a fire year now.