After a daring rescue in 'apocalyptic' wildfire conditions, the military prepares for a long fight
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: September 24, 2020
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif. — In the thickening smoke and gusting wind, two California National Guard helicopter crews made a decision: They would fly repeatedly into the spiraling wildfire crisis in the Sierra National Forest, even though they had never flown a mission quite like this one.
The aerial rescue of 214 people who were trapped in the Creek Fire captured national attention and was lauded by President Donald Trump during his visit to California this month. But it also highlighted the expanding involvement of the U.S. military in responding to wildfire season as climate change leaves forests more susceptible to blazes and for longer periods of time each year
"You understand our feelings on climate change here in California, and that California has been aggressively impacted by that," Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Smiley, a senior officer in the California National Guard, told Defense Secretary Mark Esper here last week. "Our fire season starts sooner, and our fire season now lasts until December. Every year our fire season is growing in length."
The wildfires have burned more than 3.6 million acres in California this year and 1 million in Oregon, prompting widespread evacuations. Twenty-six people have died in wildfires in California since Aug. 15, state officials say.
About 1,200 California National Guard members are involved in the response, joining firefighters on "fire lines" that are cleared with chain saws and hand tools to create buffer zones, flying rescue missions, dropping water and fire retardant by aircraft, and monitoring racing flames on drone video.
The California National Guard has a long history of helping in wildfires, but national and state officials also have relied on guard members from other states to spread the burden.
Active-duty troops also are involved. About 250 Marines and sailors participated in firefighting training at Camp Pendleton last weekend and are expected to form new crews to work by hand alongside firefighters on the Creek Fire. Other Marines performed aerial firefighting this month on the Slink Fire, which spread to the Marine Corps' mountain warfare training center in Bridgeport, in the Eastern Sierras, and soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state have helped on the August Complex Fire in the Mendocino National Forest.
"We're just in the beginning of the California fire season," Smiley said in an interview, citing the Santa Ana and sundowner winds that typically arrive each fall. "I don't really see an end until we get some rain that puts some of these fires out."
Trump issued a federal disaster declaration last month, for which Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom thanked him during the president's visit to the state. But the president also repeated his doubts about climate change being real, despite broad consensus within the scientific community.
"It will start getting cooler, you just watch!" Trump said. "I don't think science knows, actually."
Former vice president Joe Biden, Trump's Democratic challenger, has countered by calling Trump a "climate arsonist," making the case that the president's environmental record is disqualifying.
"We need a president who respects science, who understands that the damage from climate change is already here and unless we take urgent action, it'll soon be more catastrophic," Biden said.
The Defense Department, under Trump, has quieted some of its public discussion about climate change but continues to express concerns. In a report released last year, defense officials said "the effects of a changing climate are a national security issue" that could affect the military's planning, operations and installations.
Seventy-nine bases analyzed are vulnerable to climate change, including 32 Air Force installations and four Army posts, and seven Navy bases could join the list in coming years, the report said.
"Due to routine training and testing activities that are significant ignition sources, wildfires are a constant concern on many military installations," the report said. "As a result, the DoD spends considerable resources on claims, asset loss, and suppression activities due to wildfire."
The conditions in the Sierra National Forest are a glimpse into how the military could be involved in firefighting in the future.
In an interview, crew members said they were on a rotational alert status on a Sunday evening when the call for help came in. People trapped by fire had begun gathering at Mammoth Pool Reservoir, about 45 miles northeast of Fresno.
A CH-47 Chinook, flying from Stockton, reached the valley as the sun was setting. Through night-vision goggles, the crew could see a path clearly, in part because embers from the fire lit the way, said crew member Sgt. Cameron Powell.
The crew looked for a good spot to put down the aircraft — reasonably flat but ideally not dusty. A helicopter's gusty rotor wash can spread flames if the aircraft hovers a fire.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joseph Rosamond, the pilot in charge, set the Chinook down on a concrete boat launch, with help from Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brady Hlebain. In the back, Powell and Sgt. George Esquivel Jr. took in a chaotic scene that included people with burns and broken bones, and a collection of vehicles and motor homes. The air was more than 100 degrees, even after dark.
"Nobody knew where to go," Esquivel said. "Nobody knew who to talk to, or how to get help, and like everyone has been saying, it was just kind of apocalyptic in there. You know, we're all human. We're all scared, and we don't know what to do. But all of our training kicks in."
The Chinook made three trips into the valley, carrying out groups of 67, 102 and 37 people, to an airfield in Fresno. The second flight was packed because the crew members weren't sure they'd be able to fly in a third time.
The smaller Black Hawk used the same landing, said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kipp Goding, who piloted that aircraft. The 11-seat aircraft, flew three trips and carried groups of 15, 22 and 21 people to safety, he said.
"Our cabin was completely filled," he said. "There was no more space for anyone else to get in. It was wall-to-wall, front-to-rear people piled in there to make sure we could get as many out as possible."