Hotter climate means a never-ending fire season for the National Guard

Members of the California National Guard’s Task Force Rattlesnake clear brush and small trees to reduce the likelihood of a high-intensity wildfire. (Max Whittaker for NPR)

NEVADA CITY, Calif. — Jaleel Brown had only been on the job a few weeks, chainsawing for California’s Task Force Rattlesnake, when he raised his hand to fight the Jones Bar Road fire.

“I didn’t know I was getting myself into. And that’s probably the craziest fire we’ve ever had here. And I had to ask the captain like, ‘Hey, this is how every fire is?’ ” he says.

A Guardsman for almost a decade, Brown had been considering leaving the military when he learned of the Task Force — and a different kind of soldiering.

That wildfire burned 705 acres west of Nevada City, Calif., in August of 2020, one of 8,648 fires in the state that year. What made it crazy for Brown was the terrain.

“We had to hike into the fire. We ended up at the bottom of the [river] drainage. We had to cut uphill and uphill — it went like forever cutting uphill,” Brown said, looking exhausted just from the memory.

Endless fire season

Recent images from Maui have shocked Americans with the worst death toll from a wildfire in over a century. But they’re familiar to communities of Western states, where a warming climate has made fire an existential threat. After California lost over 4 million acres to fire in 2020, the state funded Task Force Rattlesnake, to assist the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

“Fire season is almost a thing of the past. It’s year round,” says Carl Trujillo, a Sgt. 1st Class in the California Army National Guard.

“Even if there’s not fire, it’s prepping for fire and it’s treating the landscape to try and mitigate the impact that the fire has when it does come because it is going to come,” he says.

Cal Fire used to rely on prison inmates for firelines, which involved a lot more supervision. With the Task Force Rattlesnake guardsmen, it’s a military operation, with a practiced chain of command. After setting up the program as an emergency response in 2019, it’s now grown to 14 crews of National Guardsman who are salaried year round.

Members of the California National Guard’s Task Force Rattlesnake gather in Nevada City, Calif., to begin their day. (Max Whittaker for NPR)
Members of the National Guard’s Task Force Rattlesnake clear brush and small trees to create a fireline, to deprive any fast-moving fire of fuel. (Max Whittaker for NPR)

“In the past, [Cal Fire] 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, and that’s a big role that Task Force Rattlesnake plays,” says Trujillo.

With the strain of COVID emergencies, civil unrest around the country, and the Guard’s regular overseas duties, the creation — and funding — of the task force has actually helped provide a degree of structure and reliability.

Nonetheless, climate change disasters are straining Guard troops nationwide, not just in California.

California National Guard Sgt. Jaleel Brown tosses a small tree aside as Task Force Rattlesnake work on fire prevention. (Max Whittaker for NPR)
California National Guard Sgt. Tyler Bingham pauses for lunch while brush clearing with Task Force Rattlesnake. (Max Whittaker for NPR)

“In 2021, the National Guard spent 172,000 personnel days fighting fires, and that’s compared to about 18,000 personnel days in 2019. So it’s gone up significantly,” says Erin Sikorsky with the Center for Climate and Security. She tracks how climate is engaging military forces worldwide, including the U.S. Army National Guard. The strain on the Guard makes her wonder what would happen if the U.S. were at war.

“Many of those same troops are the ones that would be called upon in case of a conflict,” she says. “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.”

Fighting fires before they happen

In California it’s been a mercifully quiet year so far, which means more days for Task Force Rattlesnake to work on prevention.

Just outside Nevada City, a crew walks up an abandoned logging road that smells of red cedar and damp earth. They’ve been reopening the road for weeks, for access and also as a potential fire-break to protect the houses further up the hill. With chainsaws axes and chippers they remove deadwood that could fuel a fire, and cut down “ladder trees” the 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.

California National Guard Specialist John McMahan working on fire prevention as part of Task Force Rattlesnake. (Max Whittaker for NPR)
Cal Fire Captain Eric Ayers briefs members of the California National Guard’s Task Force Rattlesnake before they spend the day clearing brush and small trees, all part of fire prevention tactics. (Max Whittaker for NPR)

Capt. Eric Ayers has worked 34 years with Cal Fire, and he’s supervising the Task Force on this summer’s day.

“If we were to have fire in here today, without this fuel reduction being done, the fire would be too intense, and it’s going to ladder up these trees and all the timber in here is going to be fully consumed,” he says.

Ayers is a third generation woodsman. 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.

“It’s kind of like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You do the initial paint, you get to one end and you gotta go back and redo it,” he says.

But it’s work these guardsmen say they enjoy. Brett Carl joined Task Force Rattlesnake in 2020, after two years of doing COVID response for the National Guard. Sawing trees and lugging brush until he’s dog tired is more what he had in mind when he joined.

“It’s manly right? Can’t get more manly than that!” he says with a laugh. “I feel better about myself mentally, physically every day once we get out here running the chainsaw.”

Carl says the Task Force is an attractive transition from the military as well, setting up a possible career in fire fighting, which appears to be a growth industry as North America keeps posting record high temperatures.

California National Guard Specialist Brett Carl cuts down a small tree while working on fire prevention with Task Force Rattlesnake. (Max Whittaker for NPR)

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