Drone scans Rim Fire area


By Alex MacLean / The Union Democrat

An MQ-1 unmanned drone - an unarmed version of the ones used for military purposes - was deployed Wednesday to scan the Rim Fire area.

It was only the second time such "remotely piloted aircraft" have been used in a wildfire application. It is being used to spot new fire starts.

The Cessna-sized drone was flown out of the Victorville Airport. It is flown by the 163rd Wing of the California National Guard, based at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside.

Officials stressed that the images are being used only to aid in the effort to contain the fire. It is being flown over mostly unpopulated areas and is escorted by a manned plane when over populated areas.

The U.S. Secretary of Defense had to sign off on its use.

The MQ-1 use complemented traditional suppression methods employed throughout the firefight - aerial drops of retardant and water, digging lines with dozers and by hand to slow the spread, and the use of backburns.

When wildfires hit the flanks of containment lines, ground teams check the surrounding area for rogue patches of flames. Crews on the line will often also have one member monitor unburned areas in case a fire starts.

The drone allows incident commanders to accomplish the same, but remotely and without the danger to life, explained Michael Williams, spokesman for the Southern Area Blue Team, heading up the U.S. Forest Service's Rim Fire response.

The drone also helps incident commanders put resources in strategic places in a timely and safe manner, Williams said.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, in from Washington D.C., discussed the drone's use with the media Wednesday at the Incident Command center on Cherry Lake Road.

"I was briefed this morning that the aircraft was able to pick up a spot outside the line that our infrared cameras did not pick up last night," he said.

"That's the sort of thing that we're really interested in - to see how we can use the best technology. The sooner we can pick up a spot, often we can get crews on it right away and handle it quickly."

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