Touted as a “mega-fire”, the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park, Calif., is the fourth largest wildfire in California history. In order to battle the blaze, incident commanders from CAL FIRE made a historic request, to have a remotely piloted aircraft fly overhead to provide 24/7 real time video of the fire and its progression.
Predators from the 163d Reconnaissance Wing of the California Air National Guard, flew the first, sustained use of a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in wild land firefighting efforts in the continental U.S. The MQ-1 Predator has the ability to fly over the fire for approximately 20 hours per day, transmitting real-time electro-optic (EO) and infra-red (IR) video that is helping CAL FIRE incident commanders on the ground make more informed decisions to help save property, infrastructure and most importantly lives.
“In the first 30 to 45 minutes, I saw more of the fire than I had in four days of hiking it,” said CAL FIRE Capt. Jeremy Salizonni, who is the embedded, fire behavioral analyst at the 163d RW. Salizonni said that the Predator provided unparalleled images that he described as nothing short of miraculous. “We were able to isolate, identify and act upon spot fires, that would have become extensions of the fire, in minutes, not hours,” he said.
CAL FIRE has said the use of the Predator has given them the opportunity to gain new insights into extreme fire behavior. On video from the Rim Fire, Salizonni said, “I’ve seen active, crown fire runs at 0400 hours — that’s something I haven’t seen before.”
The real time video has also provided the ability for fire managers to keep an eye on the progression of fires enabling a higher safety rating for crews on the ground. Colonel Dana Hessheimer, 163d Reconnaissance Wing commander, has described the use of the Predator as “game changer” in assisting civilian entities fighting wild land fires.
“We knew what our capabilities were, but it was hard to showcase them,” Hessheimer said.
Salizonni is optimistic in the greater use of RPA going forward to combat extreme, mega-fires in the future. “I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of its capabilities for public safety,” he said.
(This article was submitted by and is being printed with the permission of the 163rd RW public affairs office.)