NASA drone aids crews fighting Zaca fire

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Firefighters battling the stubborn Zaca fire got an assist last week from a high-flying unmanned aircraft, NASA and Ventura County officials said Friday.

NASA’s Ikhana, a Predator B drone adapted for civil missions, flew over the wide-ranging fire zone once in the morning and again in the afternoon of Aug. 16 to map where the flames were heading.

The fire, which has consumed more than 235,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, is 83% contained. Incident commanders said they hoped to have full containment by Sept. 7.

Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper called the NASA drone a “great tool,” because its sophisticated instruments captured images unseen by conventional aircraft.

“It provided intelligence as to where the front was,” Roper said in a fire update Friday to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. “Otherwise we would have been blinded by the smoke.”

Ikhana collected data on Zaca and three other wildfires while flying more than 1,200 miles over 10 hours, according to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.

Zaca Incident Commander Mike Dietrich of the U.S. Forest Service said he was impressed with its performance.

“The images from the flight demonstrated that this technology has a future in helping us fight wild-land fires,” Dietrich said in a statement.

A DC-10 jet was also used several times over the past weeks to dump 12,000 gallons of pink flame retardant with each pass, Roper told supervisors. The plane, which almost crashed in June fighting a fire over the Tehachapi mountains, is privately contracted and is the only one of its kind in the United States, he said.

Though helpful in dousing flames, the jet has limitations that make it a tool, not a “panacea,” Roper said. Its girth creates air turbulence for up to 15 minutes, making it unsafe for helicopters and conventional fixed-wing planes to continue their attack, he said.

“Even if there were 20 of them, it would not put the fire out,” Roper said. “We have to have crews on the ground.”

Roper’s report came as the Board of Supervisors approved a proclamation declaring a state of emergency. The action opens the way for Ventura County to seek state and federal reimbursement of its firefighting costs.

Total costs of battling the Zaca fire, which began July 4 near Solvang, are $99.7 million to date. Ventura County’s share will be at least $50,000, Roper told supervisors.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already made similar declarations for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

The fire no longer poses an immediate danger to communities, but plumes of smoke will still be visible for weeks as firefighters douse a final northwest flank, said Capt. Barry Parker, spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.

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