How California Guard MQ-9s Are Helping With Fire Response

 In Defense, Air

California Air National Guard MQ-9s have flown the length of the entire state help­ing to coor­di­nate respons­es to more than 24 fires that have been burn­ing in the past two months.

As of Sept. 28, there have been 7,982 total wild­fires, burn­ing more than 3.6 mil­lion acres and dam­ag­ing or destroy­ing 7,630 struc­tures, accord­ing to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

To help with the response, the 163rd Attack Wing at times had three Reapers in the air at a time, flying more than 70 sor­ties and more than 1,000 mis­sion hours, accord­ing to a release. Their oper­a­tions so far this fire season have more than dou­bled any pre­vi­ous year, said Maj. Lee Nichols, the senior intel­li­gence offi­cer in the 163rd Operations Group.

The wing was first acti­vat­ed to help combat the LNU Lightning Complex fire last month, which now has burned 363,220 acres but is mostly con­tained. Since then, pilots, sensor oper­a­tors, and intel­li­gence offi­cers from other MQ‑9 units in eight states have flown to California to help with the response. MQ-9s have pro­vid­ed fire-map­ping sur­veil­lance to help emer­gency crews coor­di­nate a response, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly flying over burned areas to pro­vide damage assess­ments.

“The guest help has been hugely instru­men­tal to surg­ing to three lines,” said Capt. Eric Jeppsen, the 196th Attack Squadron’s chief of cur­rent oper­a­tions, in the release. “The timing has been dif­fi­cult.”

The wing played a piv­otal role in a dra­mat­ic rescue in early September when California Army National Guard heli­copters flew through smoke and fire to pick up more than 200 people who were strand­ed near a reser­voir as flames encir­cled them. An MQ‑9 was track­ing the Creek Fire, and spot­ted safe land­ing sites for CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 Black Hawk heli­copters with the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade.

“We had air­crew mem­bers with family and friends at those lakes, and told them to get out of there,” Jeppsen said in the release. “The infrared capa­bil­i­ty cut through the smoke. We’re thou­sands of feet above a fire so fierce it was gen­er­at­ing its own weath­er, in this case, caus­ing thun­der­storms. Our role was help­ing intel deter­mine where the heli­copters needed to go.”

The pilots of the chop­pers were forced to use night-vision gog­gles and instru­ments to land because the smoke was so thick, as winds gusted up to 30 knots. Once on the ground, the air­crew loaded as many people as pos­si­ble into the heli­copters, flying three evac­u­a­tions each, accord­ing to ABC News. The air­crew received Distinguished Flying Crosses for their actions.

 “This is our back­yard, this area that we’re oper­at­ing in, it’s where we train and we’re out there a couple times a week,” Black Hawk Pilot Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kipp Goding told ABC News. “It’s also the local com­mu­ni­ty for us, friends, neigh­bors, people we go to church with and are friends with, so we all know people who have been def­i­nite­ly evac­u­at­ed and we fly over neigh­bor­hoods where we know people that live there.”

Air Force Magazine source|articles

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