This summer, smoke from Canada has already sorely damaged its southern neighbor — the United States. More than a third of the U.S. population suffered from poor air quality, driving schools to cancel outdoor activities, sports venues to postpone games, and outdoor workers to stay home. Visits to emergency rooms increased as people struggled to breathe. And more Canadian smoke is on its way. The harm caused by Canadian wildfires shines a light on how climate change makes the world a more dangerous place. By undermining military training, operations, and installations, climate-worsened fires also pose direct and indirect threats to U.S. national security. 

Before Canada’s smoke wafted through U.S. cities, few experts anticipated how Canada’s growing wildfire challenge could threaten the United States. So far this year, wildfires in Canada have already burned 10 million hectares — about eight times the ten-year average. As of mid-July, over 880 fires were still actively burning in Canada, with 579 fires out of control. This fire season has already proven particularly dangerous, likely in part because of climate change. Climate change worsens wildfires: it dries the air, as well as vegetation, and deepens droughts, leading to hotter, bigger wildfires. Climate-worsened wildfires burn more land. They have fueled a fivefold increase in burned area in California from 1996 to 2021. They also now burn hotter — about 400 degrees hotter than they have historically — so hot they can turn the silica in soil into glass. As a result, wildfires both domestic and abroad pose a worsening threat to the United States and its security. 

Smoky Skies Undermine Troop Health and Training

Worsening wildfires translate to greater health risks. Wildfire smoke releases particulate matter, which can stay in the air for weeks even after the fire is out. These particles, when breathed, can contribute to various respiratory and cardiovascular problems. When wildfire smoke swept into the United States, it turned skylines orange, jeopardizing the health of tens of millions of Americans. Covered in hazy skies, New York experienced its worst air quality in modern history. Wildfires in Canada increased health risks for military personnel from New York to Virginia, potentially degrading the physical condition of troops and the preparedness of the affected military personnel. 

The Canadian wildfires also disrupted U.S. training efforts. Air quality warnings led to canceled training sessions at Fort Drum, a U.S. Army installation in New York. At the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, some teams limited physical exercises outdoors. 

Smoke has halted military practices in the past when conditions grew too dangerous for strenuous outdoor activity. In July 2018, wildfires damaged training grounds at U.S. Army base Fort Cavazos — formerly known as Fort Hood — in Texas, canceling field training and live-ammunition exercises. Later that year, a wildfire in Sierra Nevada forced Marines to evacuate the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, delaying all training until the fire calmed. 

Just the threat of wildfires can prevent proper training, as bases hold off on using live-ammunition on particularly hot days to prevent accidental ignitions of dry vegetation. A live-fire training sparked a destructive wildfire in Colorado in 2018.  

Fighting Fires Taxes Military Resources

In addition to disrupting training, wildfires can increase demands on military resources as communities seek assistance in response mobilization. As climate-fueled wildfires erupt across the United States, the military has supplied soldiers, helicopters, and air tankers to aid civilian firefighting efforts. The use of the military in fire suppression has become so frequent that last year, California established an official military firefighting strike team to focus on containing fires more quickly. In 2020, over 250 Navy and Marine personnel assisted at the frontline of the Creek Fire in central California. That same year, 200 active duty Army soldiers helped to tame fires elsewhere in California, Arizona, and Colorado. 

As climate change prolongs the fire season — the average length of the western United States’ wildfire season is three months longer today than it was decades ago — the National Guard now prepares to fight wildfires year round. Last year, the National Guard deployed units to Texas in January, Florida in March, and Nebraska and New Mexico in April to quell out-of-control fires. 

The U.S. military is not alone in lending aid to fight wildfires. Canada deployed Canadian Forces personnel across Alberta, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and Quebec in response to recent fires. Around 300 members of the Canadian Armed Forces as well as Army reserve soldiers worked side by side with firefighting teams to suppress the fires in Alberta. Another 200 soldiers brought resources to Quebec, helping with suppression and coordination efforts. This fire season, Spain too has already deployed military units and helicopters in response to two different out-of-control fires. In January, Chile mobilized its military to fight raging wildfires. In 2022, NATO deployed forty fire-fighting aircraft to combat fires in Greece.  

Frequent use of military personnel and equipment for firefighting risks spreading resources too thin for other missions and degrading operational readiness. A group of retired U.S. military generals and admirals raised this concern in 2014, warning that “the increased frequency, duration, and magnitude of these extreme weather events will stress these organizations’ capacities” and that the increased demand on the military “must be factored into future war plans.” Yet demands by civilian authorities for firefighting assistance from the military will likely continue unless governments fund the expansion of civilian emergency capabilities to match the rising climate threat.

The United States need only look to Europe to see the risks that arise with dual climate and security crises. Last summer, for example, the Slovenian military as well as seven other nations’ militaries fought record-breaking fires. Slovenia’s Major General Robert Glavaš told the Washington Post, “in this situation with Ukraine and wildfires, we are in a dilemma how to balance…At one point you need to decide what is important, this or that.” Slovenian defense leaders decided to purchase aircrafts that could also fight fires, canceling a $343 million purchase of armored troop carriers. Military leaders in Portugal have also chosen to purchase new helicopters outfitted for firefighting. As the war in Ukraine continues, European militaries may face similarly difficult choices again this summer. 

Wildfires Damage Military Installations

Wildfires undermine military preparedness when they threaten military installations. A 2019 Pentagon report found that wildfires already threatened around 45 percent of the studied military bases — a figure expected to rise to 54 percent within the next twenty years. Approximately twenty U.S. Air Force installations face a high fire threat and another fifteen face elevated risk. 

In 2016, a wildfire burned over ten thousand acres at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, coming very close to two Space Launch Complexes, ammunition, weapons, a chemical storage facility, and a fully-fueled rocket. The fire delayed a scheduled rocket launch and caused several facilities to rely on generators when electrical power lines went down. Fires have reached the Vandenberg Air Force Base almost every year since, sparing the buildings but prompting evacuation of non-essential personnel. 

Wildfires do not have to reach installations themselves to jeopardize military operations. Wildfires can threaten the critical infrastructure required by bases and missions, such as electric power. For example, even military installations that wildfires do not directly threaten may suffer disruption if fires interrupt electrical power generated off-base or contaminate water supplies. Transportation systems like roads and bridges can also face serious fire threat, further endangering the infrastructure the military relies on to operate. 

Climate Preparedness Matters

For years, U.S. Secretaries of Defense have warned of the dangers that climate change poses to national security. Secretary Lloyd Austin III called climate change an “existential threat” to U.S security. The recent wildfire crisis should serve as a warning sign. Just as smoke from Canadian wildfires disrupted the lives of millions of Americans, climate change impacts — including wildfires — will bring unprecedented challenges to U.S. military readiness. 

When it comes to climate change, the U.S. military has tended towards preparing to “fight the last war,” rather than planning for a more volatile and dangerous world. To be sure, under President Joe Biden, the U.S. military has taken admirable steps to begin accounting for the physical risks of climate change, including issuing the 2021 Department of Defense Climate Risk Analysis and the Department of Defense Climate Adaptation Plan. But with global temperatures rising, the military must rapidly shift to an operational and planning paradigm that incorporates the risk of future climate-worsened disasters, including bigger wildfires. 

U.S. military acquisition policies, for example, should fully account for changing conditions by developing operational requirements that incorporate future climate impacts, such as higher temperatures that exacerbate wildfire risks. Military academies should ensure that all graduates receive training on how climate change undermines troop readiness. Military leaders should retrofit installations to address new climate threats. Smokier skies require better air filtration systems, and increased power disruptions necessitate greater operational planning. With fire seasons lengthening, the U.S. military should reexamine its capacity to assist civilian authorities with their firefighting responsibilities. The military may also need to enhance its collaboration with international organizations such as NATO to expand allied fire-fighting capabilities. NATO recently announced a new center focused on climate and security, offering an opportunity for NATO members to further prepare for the security risks posed by climate change.

In short, climate change impacts like wildfires will affect readiness for the next war — from damaged installations to missed training to drained resources. To avoid the very worst security risks, nations should accelerate efforts to reduce harmful pollution that causes climate change.  Meanwhile, the best line of defense for unavoidable climate impacts is greater preparedness by military and civilian authorities alike.

IMAGE: Members of the U.S. Marine Corps rehearse in hazy smoke for the Sunset Parade at the Lincoln Memorial on June 8, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)