In August 2013, the then-designated 163rd Reconnaissance Wing of the California Air National Guard operated the MQ-1 Predator to assist in the Rim Fire which tore through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which threatened Yosemite National Park. Until that time, a request for military support of this kind was unprecedented. It took three days to be approved, and once it was, the images proved invaluable. In October of this year , the wildfires in Northern California’s wine country forced 9 counties into a state of emergency. This time, it took four hours for the currently-designated 163rd Attack Wing to get off the ground. Two Reapers, with 12-hour rotations, covered six different fires with electrical, optical, and infrared sensors to map the disaster areas.
The wildfires in Southern California burned nearly 307,900 and led to widespread evacuations and property loss. The California Air National Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing flew the MQ-9 Reaper to assist the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, along with the other state agencies that responded to the Thomas wildfire.
The New York Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing was also deployed to California to assist in flying the drones, as they too are trained on the same platform. California Guardsmen were stretched thin, and the 9 airmen from New York helped alleviate the strain.
The Reapers were providing video to crews using sensors that can peer through the smoke. The MQ-9’s ability to fly at high altitudes, and be unaffected by high winds, along with a 14 hour loiter ability, allow it to fly over fire areas much easier than helicopters. Air Force Maj. Nicholas Edwards said, “The full-motion video is used to map the fire lines and observe fire expansion and progression.” The Guard has assisted with the fire since December 5th. With footage from the drone and satellite imagery, the Guard also helped with damage assessment by getting the number of destroyed structures. All of this has helped get aid to the affected areas.
Air Force Maj. Jason Flowers suggested that fighting these fires will help to increase SAR expertise, making the Wing more effective in missions abroad. Air Force Lt. Col. Micaela Brancato said, “The American people need to understand that the Reaper is not just a hunter-killer. This is a very capable asset that really helps, whether it’s disaster, or search and rescue.”
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