With wildfires continuing to rage around Yosemite National Park, the California National Guard has deployed a remotely piloted aircraft that improves the incident commander’s ability to monitor conditions on the ground.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel approved the use of an MQ-1 Predator to support firefighters battling the Rim Fire that has expanded to more than 160,000 acres, Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Keegan, California National Guard public affairs officer, reported.
The California Air National Guard’s 163rd Reconnaissance Wing deployed the Predator yesterday, and it is being flown in direct support of the incident commander under the command and control of Army Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, California’s adjutant general, Keegan said.
The aircraft, flying from the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville for up to 22 hours without landing, will capture and deliver real-time 24/7 information on remote portions of the wildfire.
“The impact of this will be significant,” Keegan said. “It will identify where fire activity is located and how it is moving, as well as where it has been controlled.”
The aircraft also will identify safe routes of retreat for firefighters on the scene and verify new fire created by lightning strikes or floating embers. This, Keegan explained, will help the incident commander stay on top of the changing situation on the ground and make the best use of available resources.
Keegan emphasized that the images will be used only to support firefighting operations.
The aircraft’s pilots, located at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, Calif., will remain in constant contact with Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers from takeoff to landing and fly over unpopulated areas whenever possible, he said. The flight path generally will be limited to 30 nautical miles of the Rim Fire area, and whenever it flies outside the restricted airspace for the fire, a manned plane will escort it.
Meanwhile, nearly a dozen aircraft and crews from the California Air and Army National Guard are battling wildfires across Northern California.
California Army Guard helicopter crews and California Air Guard air tanker crews are working in coordination with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and U.S. Forest Service firefighting crews to battle the American, Swedes and Rim fires, Keegan reported.
In addition to two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters supporting operations at the Rim Fire, three Black Hawks are battling the American Fire and two Black Hawks and one CH-47 Chinook helicopter are flying in support of the Swedes Fire, Keegan said.
Another Black Hawk — with a specialized crew and a hoist for extracting injured personnel from rugged terrain — is staged in Redding, Calif., on call for medical evacuation support throughout Northern California.
At the Rim Fire alone, the helicopter crews have completed 905 drops, releasing more than 450,000 gallons of water and fire retardant since the crews were activated Aug. 17, Keegan said.
In addition, Air National Guard crews are using two C-130J Hercules air tankers to fight the Rim Fire. Both aircraft are equipped with the Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems II and are capable of discharging 3,000 gallons of water or retardant in less than five seconds. Since their activation Aug. 13, the air tankers have completed 122 drops, releasing more than 333,000 gallons of retardant, Keegan said.
“In times of crisis, it is imperative we pull together as a united front against the threat of wildfires in our state,” Baldwin said, noting that the California Guard regularly trains for the mission.
“Working together in a climate of cooperation with (state officials), our soldiers and Airmen are committed to preserving the lives and property of our neighbors who are threatened by this emergency,” he said.
The Rim Fire is not the first in which California has used remotely piloted aircraft technology to support firefighting. In 2007, NASA piloted a similar unmanned aircraft in response to a request from the California Office of Emergency Services and the National Interagency Fire Center.
Those flights were conducted during daytime hours, complemented by nighttime imaging flights from NIFC’s Cessna Citation and an Air Force Global Hawk, both equipped with an earlier-generation infrared camera. Pilots in a ground control station at NASA Dryden controlled the flights via satellite links.
NASA conducted additional remotely piloted aircraft missions in 2008, to monitor wildfires in Southern California, and in 2009, to assess fire damage in Angeles National Forest.
The current mission, officials said, is the longest sustained mission by an unmanned aircraft in California in support of firefighters.