New Mexico senators ask National Guard to assess firefighting capabilities

By:  Sean P. Thomas

As firefighters across the West continue to battle what experts are describing as one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in recent memory, a group of U.S. senators, including Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, are trying to get a sense of how prepared the National Guard is to help combat large-scale blazes.

Udall and Heinrich joined 10 other senators — including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — in penning a recent letter to Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, urging a “candid” assessment of the Guard’s ability to respond to requests for wildfire assistance. The request comes amid increasing drought conditions across the West; a warm, dry winter in the forecast; and concerns about the potential for a year-round fire season as the effects of climate change intensify.

“A frank estimation will help Congress address any gaps and use every resource available to respond to this year’s fires,” Udall and Heinrich said in a joint statement issued in late October. “It will also help us better resource and equip the Guard for a future in which human-driven climate change will make fire seasons increasingly severe and destructive.”

The language from the statement also appears in the letter sent to Hokanson on Oct. 22.

The letter, issued as firefighters sought to further contain the 10,100-acre Luna Fire in Carson National Forest, also requests an assessment of the availability of trained personnel and proper firefighting equipment within the National Guard, any National Guard plans with governors for coordinated regional responses and an account of the firefighting capacities available through emergency management assistance compacts. The letter also asks whether expanding those compacts would provide additional opportunities or wildfire fighting capacity.

Representatives for Hokanson did not respond to a request for comment about whether the Guard had responded to the senators.

While the National Guard does not respond to wildfires on its own, it can provide equipment and personnel assistance when requested by the Department of Homeland Security or state governors.

In New Mexico, often that assistance comes in the form of checkpoint supervision and aerial assistance via the Guard’s Black Hawk helicopters.

As recently as October, the New Mexico National Guard assisted firefighters as they battled the Luna Fire in Carson National Forest. As of last week, the fire was 61 percent contained at 10,142 acres, according to data provided by the U.S. Forest Service.

Joseph Vigil, a spokesman for the New Mexico branch of the National Guard, said its pilots received high marks from local and state ground crews as they sought to contain the Luna Fire.

He added that local guard members go through annual training, most recently completing exercises with local agencies in April.

“When we get the call, we’re ready to respond,” Vigil said. “Our motto is ‘Always ready, always there,’ and we take a lot of pride in that.”

Udall stressed the need for firefighting agencies to have the proper resources available to combat an increasingly volatile fire season.

“We owe a great deal of gratitude to our firefighters who are facing incredibly dangerous and frequent wildfires — it is critical they have all the resources they need to combat fires, particularly during a pandemic,” he said in the statement.

Donald Griego, deputy director of fire for the Forestry Division of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, said the Black Hawk helicopters available through the National Guard help bridge a vital gap in available aviation services during the start of fire season.

“New Mexico’s fire season starts earlier than other states, and there can be a shortage of firefighting aircraft in the Southwest Region until we get further into the summer months,” Griego said in a statement.

Heinrich echoed Udall’s sentiment in a statement, also noting the unusual nature of this year’s fire season and a need to create a plan for possible blazes exacerbated by climate change.

“Given recent fire activity that has been outside of New Mexico’s usual fire season, it is evident that we will be facing longer, more intense, and costly fire seasons as the climate continues to warm,” Heinrich said.

“It is my mission to be proactive and strengthen science-based resources that better prepare New Mexicans for the future that we know is coming.”