Air Force reconnaissance aircraft is being used to detect and map wildfires in the Northwest

An RC-26 from Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane is assisting with situational awareness in the firefighting effort.

RC-26

Above: An example of an RC-26, in this case a Texas Air National Guard aircraft. ANG photo.

(Originally published at 1:52 p.m. MDT August 16, 2017)

A military plane frequently used for supporting Special Forces is assisting wildland firefighters in Washington and Oregon. The Fairchild C-26 “Metroliner” twin turboprop from the 141st Air Refueling Wing was activated by the National Interagency Coordination Center on August 12 to perform up to three different types of missions using its array of infrared and video sensors.

  • Detect new fires, especially following lightning events. One of the goals is to find small fires early so they can be attacked before growing large.
  • Map existing fires, usually at night, to determine the perimeter and intensity.
  • Downlink live video to inform fire managers about the current status, location, and behavior of the fire. The Air Force calls that process “DRTI”, Distributed Real-Time Infrared.

Lt. Col. Jeremy Higgens, one of the pilots on the aircraft that requires a three-person crew, told us today that so far on this assignment they have been mapping and detecting fires, but have not yet been asked to stream any live video like they did when on a similar assignment in 2016. On the ground two displays are available, the video from the sensors and another with a map showing the location of the aircraft or the sensors’ target.

The plane is expected to work the fires seven days a week, so they brought a total of five people to provide daily service.

Lt. Col. Higgens said the infrared sensors can detect a fire that is 50 to 80 miles away. They have been flying one to two sorties a day each lasting for three to five hours. Their mapping data is sent to Geographic Information System (GIS) operators in Portland or Boise who analyze it and produce maps.

Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft”
Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft” at McClellan Air Field March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Two State of Colorado Pilatus PC-12 Multi-Mission Aircraft with similar capabilities were also mobilized earlier this summer to assist with wildfire detection and mapping and are currently operating from Redding, California and Missoula, Montana.

A couple of decades ago the U.S. Forest Service had a variant of the RC-26, a Swearingen Merlin affectionately known as a Flying Culvert outfitted with infrared equipment for detecting and mapping fires. Now they operate a King Air turboprop and a Citation jet for that mission.

6 thoughts on “Air Force reconnaissance aircraft is being used to detect and map wildfires in the Northwest”

  1. Seems like fires present the Military with a great training opportunity and vice versa; military pilots being well versed in specific aircraft capabilities. HALO Water Bombers, anybody? Aluminum Overcast?

  2. I am building an Ag Cat with EO/IR gimbal, video downlink, and all the bells & whistles. Can anyone help me contact Lt. Col. Higgens?
    Please call Hoot Gibson 970-581-6032

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