Beale Air Force Base pitches in to fight blazes in SoCal | TheUnion.com

Beale Air Force Base pitches in to fight blazes in SoCal

Patrick Groves
Special to The Union

The Air National Guard stationed at Beale Air Force Base have been aiding firefighters in Southern California with surveillance, highlighting the Thomas Fire in infrared.

The 195th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group is gathering aerial imagery for fire departments wrestling the massive fire.

The 163rd Air Attack Wing is capturing video and providing it to the 195th. Beale began providing aerial support Dec. 5, with a 24-hour operation set-up both locally and near fire affected areas.

Cal Fire Fire Capt. Jordan Motta said drone imagery is a newer technology, which provides firefighters with infrared video of wildfires.

The Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has burned 270,000 acres and was 50 percent contained as of Monday evening.

"We've partnered with the Air National Guard and they're providing us with high detailed maps," Motta said. "With that information you can see where the hottest areas of the fire are so we can steer the fire away from the more populated areas, which is what we're doing right now."

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Maj. Nicholas Edwards, the 222nd Intelligence Support Squadron director of incident awareness and assessment, said the purpose of the Air National Guard is to help the community and the state.

"We are using full-motion video from the MQ-9 to map the fire lines and look at fire expansion and progression," he said in a written statement. "We have a liaison in place with all of the fire chiefs so we can provide them with up to date information."

Continual observation helps to identify fire behavior as it develops, said Master Sgt. Jason Tyler, 234th Intelligence Squadron chief of incident awareness and assessment.

"It allows fire departments to get ahead of it and take appropriate actions such as evacuating areas which the fire may affect," Tyler said.

Beale has deployed a team to Southern California to relay the drone imagery back to the Yuba County base. The team also conducts damage assessments to determine the number of destroyed structures.

"Getting the numbers allows affected counties to get aid they need whether it's from a federal source or state agencies," Tyler said.

Jude Olivas, a spokesman for the Thomas Fire response, said the surveillance also helps to keep firefighters safe. The Thomas Fire has already killed one firefighter.

"They're very beneficial because they provide the topography from a satellite view pretty much," Olivas said. "It keeps (fire crews) from going into the areas where there could be dangers."

Motta said drone imagery is not inhibited by smoke and can provide detailed information when conventional methods cannot be used, such as a Cal Fire helicopter or airplane.

"It just helps us and the technology of those cameras is far better than the human eye," he said.

Patrick Groves is a reporter for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat. Contact him at pgroves@appealdemocrat.com.