Predator drone now part of battle against Yosemite wildfire

Predator drone now part of battle against Yosemite wildfire
The Rim Fire burns through trees near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013. Firefighters gained some ground Tuesday against the huge wildfire burning forest lands in the western Sierra Nevada, including parts of Yosemite National Park. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

GROVELAND, Calif. – As crews made significant progress building containment lines around a giant wildfire in and around Yosemite National Park, officials said they would maintain use of a National Guard Predator drone to give them early views of any new flare-ups across in the remote and rugged landscape.

The Rim Fire expanded to almost 800 square kilometres, but crews had a productive day Wednesday and containment increased to 30 per cent. Cooler temperatures and lighter winds aided the firefighters.

Increasingly confident fire officials said they expect to fully surround the blaze in three weeks, although it will burn for much longer than that.

“We continue to get line around this fire,” California fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. “It’s not nearly as active as it was last week.”

The MQ-1 unmanned aircraft deployed Wednesday was being remotely piloted hundreds of miles away, allowing ground commanders to keep an eye out for new fires they otherwise wouldn’t have immediately seen.

“The drone is providing data directly back to the incident commander, allowing him to make quick decisions about which resources to deploy and where,” Berlant said.

Previously, officials relied on helicopters that needed to refuel every two hours.

While unmanned aircraft have mapped past fires, use of the Predator will be the longest sustained mission by a drone in California to broadcast information to firefighters in real time.

The plane, the size of a small Cessna, will remain over the burn zone for up to 22 hours at a time, allowing fire commanders to monitor fire activity, determine the fire’s direction of movement, the extent of containment and confirm new fires ignited by lightning or flying embers.

The drone is being flown by the 163rd Wing of the California National Guard at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside and is operating from Victorville Airport, both in Southern California. It generally flew over unpopulated areas on its 480-kilometre flight to the Rim Fire. Outside the fire area, it will be escorted by a manned aircraft.

Officials were careful to point out the images are being used only to aid in the effort to contain the fire.

In 2009 a NASA Predator equipped with an infrared imaging sensor helped the U.S. Forest Service assess damage from a fire in Angeles National Forest. In 2008, a drone capable of detecting hot spots helped firefighters assess movement of a series of wildfires stretching from Southern California’s Lake Arrowhead to San Diego.

The Rim Fire started Aug. 17 and quickly exploded in size, becoming one of the 10 largest California wildfires on record. Its progression slowed earlier this week when it moved from parts of the forest with thick underbrush that had not burned in nearly a century to areas that had seen fire in the past two decades.

But it will burn for months, possibly until California’s dry season ends this fall.

“My prediction is it will burn until we see rain,” said Hugh Safford, a regional ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

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