Fresh off the fire lines in San Bernadino, California, Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said Thursday that this year’s fire season is shaping up to be one of the worst on record.
“1987 was one of the worst fire seasons on record, and currently they’re on pace to exceed that,” said Hokanson, speaking to reporters. “If you go back to the beginning of fire season earlier this year, within the state of California they burned about 1.6 million acres, which is roughly the size of the state of Delaware.”
The fires have destroyed more than 3,200 structures, including homes, and there have been eight deaths. More than 12,400 people remained evacuated Thursday.
Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, assistant adjutant general of the California National Guard expressed confidence in the ability of guardsmen in his state to provide sustained response to wildfires.
New classes of California Guardsmen are constantly being trained to respond to fires. Last month, a news release reported that more than 270 soldiers began training. Beevers said the Guard is presently training another 550 members who will rotate into the mix of current crews to prevent burnout.
In addition to the human resources the Guard provides, Beevers expressed that the 16 bucket helicopters, 4 modular airborne firefighting systems-equipped C-130s, and surveying drones have also been an invaluable resource.
“These young airmen are being able to provide incident commanders in the field real time data on the unique behavior of a specific fire,” Beevers said. “They can put fire teams in the right place at the right time.”
But the 1,300 soldiers and airmen from five different states activated to fight wildfires on the West Coast are only a sliver of the roughly 64,000 National Guardsmen currently serving domestically and overseas.
That’s a significant decrease from June, when COVID-19 and civil unrest pushed numbers to a peak of nearly 120,000 members activated.
Despite the workload 2020 has handed guardsmen, Hokanson said the force has remained capable and ready.
“At the same time, we met every one of our overseas deployment requirements, and it had no impact there at all,” Hokanson said, referencing the high levels of domestic missions.
Of the 64,000 currently activated, more than 18,000 are still tasked with COVID-19 relief missions across all 54 states and territories. Federal support for such missions was extended until 2021 at the beginning of last month.
“National Guard forces around the country have provided critical support to governors as the governors work to address the needs of those populations within their respective states and territories,” President Donald Trump’s executive memorandum stated.
Another nearly 4,000 soldiers and airmen continue to provide relief to communities in Texas and Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Laura. Airmen on the ground have been working to clear roadways of fallen trees and debris, the Louisiana Air National Guard reported.
There are a lot of people in need,” said Senior Airman Alejandro Peralta, a structural engineering journeyman, in a news release. “Hopefully, they are comforted and feel supported when they see the Louisiana Air National Guard working in the area.”
This year’s hurricane season has a 60 percent chance of above-normal activity, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the season won’t end until Nov. 30.
As hurricane and fire seasons continue on opposite coasts, civil unrest also rolls on across the country.
Most recently, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers requested out-of-state assistance for protests following the police shooting of Jacob Blake and subsequent killing of two demonstrators.
Military police companies from Michigan, Alabama, and Arizona responded.
While a contingent of Arizona National Guard soldiers returned home from Kenosha, Hokanson said more than 1,200 soldiers and airmen continue to assist state and local law enforcement in various states.
“2020 in general kind of proved just what a tremendous value the National Guard is for our nation,” said Hokanson.
This story contains information from the Associated Press.
Harm Venhuizen is an editorial intern at Military Times. He is studying political science and philosophy at Calvin University, where he's also in the Army ROTC program.