Pentagon says climate change is a growing security threat

Wildfires have the potential to become a concern at seven additional bases where it is not now a serious threat

Canyon Fire entrapment
3-D map of the Canyon Fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base, looking east. The red line was the perimeter of the Canyon Fire at 11 p.m. PDT September 20, 2016. The white line was the perimeter at approximately 11 p.m. September 19.

A report prepared by the Department of Defense in 2019 identified 36 bases where wildfire is currently a concern. Taking climate change into account that number is expected to grow to 43 over the next 20 years.

An analysis required by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 studied 79 priority installations based on their operational role. The goal was to assess the significant vulnerabilities from climate-related events in order to identify high risks to mission effectiveness on installations and to operations.

The installations break down by organization as follows:

Military Base Climate Change Study
Department of Defense

In addition to the predicted effects of climate change on wildfire potential, the report also considers recurrent flooding, drought, desertification, and the thawing of permafrost.

The installations that currently are not classified as vulnerable to wildfires but are expected to become so within 20 years are:

  • Key West Naval Air Station, Florida
  • Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, Georgia
  • Joint Base Pearl Harbor & Hickham, Hawaii
  • Wahiawa Annex, Hawaii
  • Naval Magazine Indian Island, Washington
  • Naval and Submarine Base Bangor, Washington
  • Naval Base Guam

Of the 79 installations that were considered in the study, all that were predicted to develop a new vulnerability to wildfire are Naval Bases. Of the 21 Army bases only 4 are now described as vulnerable to wildfire and no others are identified as becoming vulnerable within 20 years.

Military Base Climate Change Study
A summary from the report of current and future (20 years) vulnerabilities to military installations.

One example of an Air Force Base that is currently vulnerable to wildfires is Vandenberg on the Southern California Coast. Two fires on the base come to mind:

  1. On December 20, 1977, three people were entrapped and killed on the Honda Canyon Fire on the base, including the Base Commander Colonel Joseph Turner, Fire Chief Billy Bell, and Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper. Additionally, severe burns were experienced by Heavy Equipment Operator Clarence McCauley.  He later died due to complications from the burns.
  2. In 2016 the Canyon Fire burned over 12,000 acres on the base. Dozens of firefighters were entrapped and endured a harrowing escape through very thick smoke and flying embers. The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned center produced an excellent explanatory video about the entrapment.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

5 thoughts on “Pentagon says climate change is a growing security threat”

  1. I was taken aback a bit by Naval Air Station Key West, as it is on an island in the ocean surrounded by salt water marshes and a few urban subdivisions. A possible reason Army bases to not be on the list is that many bases have a fire maintained ecology because of live fire (weapons) training. I worked in land management and wild life management in the early seventies on Fort Benning GA. The interior of the base had an open grassland/southern pine forest. The understory was swept by frequent fires and there was little tree harvesting in the interior. Most of the trees were mature and their spacing was far apart. This kept the habitat similar to what it was like before the south was populated and “civilized” by western man. These habitats are “islands” for certain endangered species that used to thrive throughout the region. The Fort Jackson burnover reported on this site was in this habitat whereby wildlife managers were attempting to propagate the endangered Red Cockaded woodpecker which thrives only in fire maintained forests and in some large urban parks where the trees are allowed to mature and the fuels are managed. (This is not for fire management but to keep a “parklike setting.”) Because of budget cutbacks and earmarking military funds for actual and continued fighting overseas, there are less live fire training on military bases, so the habitats need some human help.

  2. Bill,
    I think some of our near term priorities might get a bit cross threaded as a result of studies like this.
    I realize my comments might be construed as a bit short sighted … chalk that up to 31 years of Naval service.

    Almost 50 years ago I reported to what was then NAS Miramar to learn how to fly fighters. I spent my first week at the Naval Air Station in my Nomex flight suit … digging fire line and standing fire watch to catch any spotting that made its way over highway 163 on to the air station proper. Santa Ana winds were driving a fire west, down hill thru typical overgrown Southern California scrub toward the air station. I would venture that today, the same fire risk exists at what is now MCAS Miramar.

    While I appreciate that we need to be concerned about climate change I would suggest that the first actions should be to adequately mitigate fuels and improve initial attack capability at military facilities that have increased fire risk or are projected to have increased fire risk. In the military, we tended to address the most immediate problem first by using the most effective tools and methods available.

    So if anyone working on 5 year base facilities budgets in the Pentagon happens to read this, mitigation and suppression are immediately effective today and tomorrow and for the next 5 years. Funds available to a base commander to address wildfire risk are always limited. Should the available funds be spent on improved mitigation and suppression capability or on addressing climate change? While climate change proposals offer long term hope, hope is not a plan for a military facility at risk of wildfire.

  3. The impacts of a changing climate is indeed a safety; economic; and a security issue. The consequences are now a national crisis contributing to global degradation. We simply cannot ignore the facts any longer. The current fire situation, especially in the western part of the United States and Australia, as examples, brings the fact that our climate is changing into a very stark reality. We can all help with pragmatic actions. Being aware of what we are facing is a good first step. Reconsideration of our stance on the Paris Accord would be another step. Not gutting NEPA is another; carefully thought out adjustments is key. Oh my goodness we need to band together on this fundamental issue that affects us all, now and ahead.


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