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Rim fire: Drone aircraft provides aerial images of massive blaze

PoliticsFederal Aviation Administration

GROVELAND, Calif. -- The nation’s latest cutting-edge firefighting tool is now flying through the smoky skies above the Rim fire near Yosemite National Park: an unmanned drone aircraft that provides real-time imagery affording fire commanders a birds-eye view of the 300-square-mile blaze.

Incident Cmdr. Mike Wilkins requested the MQ-1 aircraft belonging to the California Air National Guard. The remotely piloted plane began flying Wednesday morning. It continued on a 20-hour mission throughout the day, alerting crews to a spot fire and providing a more comprehensive fire map.

The drone, about the size of a small Cessna plane, takes off from the Victorville Airport and is operated from March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, said Lt. Col. Tom Keegan of the National Guard.

Unmanned aircraft have been used sparingly on fires but are gaining traction as a cheaper, more efficient tool for fire bosses to better understand where fires are going and how they are behaving.

They are especially prized for their ability to beam real-time pictures directly to fire bosses, who can make tactical adjustments more quickly. The aircraft are equipped with infared heat sensors and a swiveling camera operated by a remote pilot.

Unlike fixed-wing planes and helicopters, drones are not grounded at night or unable to fly in high winds or smoke. They fly at about 18,000 feet and cost about $800 an hour to operate, Keegan said.

Gov. Brown requested the plane from the U.S. secretary of Defense. The Federal Aviation Administration must also approve of the MQ-1, which is escorted to the fire by a lead plane.

According to Kelly Huston, the deputy director of the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, drones were used experimentally on fires in 2003 and more extensively in 2007.

“The incident commander wanted better data and better mapping of this fire,”  Huston said, and  Brown passed on the request.  

Huston said the governor was monitoring the escalating costs associated with the fire, including the damage to infrastructure and utilities, and will consider whether to request a national emergency declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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