RPAs Mainstay of California Wildland Firefighting Ops
by USAF Senior Airman Crystal Housman, California National Guard Public Affairs
October 29, 2018
Five years after a proof-of-concept mission to use the California
Air National Guard’s remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in support of
domestic wildland firefighting operations, the MQ-9 Reaper has
developed into a key asset in California’s fight against wildfires,
including the 2018 ones like the Carr and Mendocino Complex Fires in
An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted
aircraft assigned to the 163d Attack Wing soars over
Southern California skies on a training flight to March Air
Reserve Base, California, on September 15, 2016. (Air
National Guard Photo by Tech. Sgt. Neil Ballecer)
“It’s a technology I never thought I’d see,” said Jeremy
Salizzoni, a fire technical specialist with the California
Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) who embedded
with the Cal Guard’s 163d Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base,
California, during 2013’s devastating Rim Fire.
More than a
quarter of a million acres burned in August 2013 as the Rim Fire
raged in Tuolumne County, California, to become the state’s third
largest wildfire on record, at the time. More than 100 structures
were lost in the blaze, which took nine weeks to fully contain.
Eleven days after the Rim Fire started, the wing launched a
first-of-its kind mission to overfly the fire with an MQ-1 Predator
remotely piloted reconnaissance aircraft and beam back real-time
video footage of the fire to Salizzoni and wing intelligence
analysts working in an operations facility at March.
the Predator’s footage, Salizzoni, who was used to driving for hours
through rugged terrain to access overlook points and put eyes on the
leading edge of a fire, could see any area of the fire he wanted, in
real time and without ever leaving the operations facility.
The remotely piloted aircraft’s thermal imaging camera provided a
view of the fire unlike anything he’d ever seen. Traditional aerial
assets are important, but encounter limitations due to smoke, fuel,
altitude and field of view, he said.
“It was such a dramatic
change from anything I’d seen in my career,” Salizzoni said. “It was
like being blind and then having vision in the blink of an eye.”
Salizzoni and his colleagues knew they had a new tool in their
“We saw things over the course of that
fire that you couldn’t have made up,” he said. “I don’t think
there’s a better intel resource at our disposal right now.”
During its eight-day emergency activation for the Rim Fire, the 163d
Reconnaissance Wing — the unit’s name at the time — logged more than
150 hours of fire support and was credited with helping firefighters
In the five years since, the 163d has
changed its name and the kind of airplane it flies, but one thing
hasn’t changed: the wing’s dedication to domestic disaster response
missions right here at home. The unit remains impassioned to
innovate and provide first responders with instantaneous insight
into what a fire is doing.
RPAs are no longer just trying to
prove their worth, said U.S. Air Force Maj. Mike Baird, the senior
intelligence officer at the 163d. The wing’s MQ-9 Reaper RPAs – a
big-brother to the recently-retired Predators – are an in-demand
incident awareness and assessment asset preferred by California’s
civil authorities when disaster strikes.
The wing has
supported more than 20 wildfires since 2013, but it takes more than
just airplanes, Baird said. Keeping California safe takes a
“What we’ve been doing behind the scenes
from maintenance and communications to refining our deployment and
personnel processes has led up to our ability to provide an
unprecedented level of MQ-9 support,” Baird said.
provided real-time full motion video support over a number of fires
in 2017, including California’s most destructive fire on record and
also its largest fire to date. More than 5,600 structures were
damaged and 22 lives were lost during the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma
County in October. Two months later, in December, the Thomas Fire
ravaged Ventura and Santa Barbara counties to become the state’s
largest fire on record with more than 280,000 acres burned.
As each fire rages, the wing works to refine its techniques and
procedures, and works to expand the detailed real-time incident
awareness and assessment data it provides to incident commanders.
Innovation on the fly is the name of the game.
by James G. Clark, Director of Air Force Innovation, and Col. Chris
McDonald from Disruptive Innovation Division in Clark’s office,
helped the wing’s Hap Arnold Innovation Center develop a specialized
network to push and pull data from RPAs and other data-generating
assets from civilian and military organizations.
network’s customizable data sets — coupled with the RPAs’ real-time
thermal imagery — provides incident commanders and first responders
a common operating picture they can access from anywhere, anytime.
RPAs proved “an opportunity for people to make tactical and
objective based decisions on real time information,” Salizzoni said.
As the Rim Fire nears its fifth anniversary, RPAs are once again
in the sky, flying through smoke, to deliver data and protect
Californians as wildfires ravage the state.
By July 31, 2018
the 163d was on its fifth fire of the summer.
An aircrew from the 163d Attack
Wing, California Air National Guard, fly an MQ-9 Reaper
remotely piloted aircraft to the Mendocino Complex Fire in
Northern California on August 4, 2018 during a mission to
support state agencies. The aircrew conducted fire perimeter
scans and spot checks on the blaze, which encompasses the
Ranch and River fires and continues to grow. (U.S. Air
National Guard photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman)
Throughout July, the wing flew nearly 350 hours to support civil
authorities working the County, Klamathon, Ferguson, Carr, Mendocino
Complex, and Eel fires, and is credited with helping to protect
thousands of structures in the process. The MQ-9 provided near
real-time full motion video and frequent fire-line updates to
decision makers determining where to build up future containment
It’s a marathon pace, but the wing’s airmen up for it,
said 1st Lt. Frank Cruz, officer in charge of the 163d Aircraft
Maintenance Squadron, whose unit provides direct support for the
MQ-9’s around-the-clock fire operations to aid civil authorities.
“Everyone is 100% on board,” Cruz said. “They’re all-in.”
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