Military RC-26 reconnaissance aircraft deployed to assist firefighters

The aircraft can detect new fires, map them, and stream real time video

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

(Originally published at 9:13 a.m. PDT July 30, 2018)

For at least the third time in recent years a manned military fixed wing aircraft is helping the firefighting agencies collect real time intelligence about ongoing wildfires. An RC-26 aircraft with Distributed Real-Time Infrared capability and support personnel from the Washington Air National Guard’s 141st Air Refueling Wing have been deployed to Spokane, Washington in support of wildland fire operations in the West.

In 2017 when one of the RC-26’s was activated, its objective was 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.

Here is  a portion of what we wrote last year when one of the RC-26’s was deployed:


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.

Oregon has 27 exclusive use aircraft on firefighting contracts this year

The Oregon Department of Forestry will have a greater emphasis this year on infrared mapping and the use of drones, and, has the 747 on a CWN contract.

Above: Whitewater Fire, 6 miles east of Idanha, Oregon. August 19, 2017. Inciweb photo.

With smoke from the 2017 wildfires still fresh in the minds of Oregonians, the Oregon Department of Forestry is already gearing up for this summer’s wildfires.

The agency’s Interim Fire Operations Manager Blake Ellis said a lot of preparation goes on behind the scenes each winter and spring. “We work to ensure firefighters are equipped and ready to respond quickly and effectively to wildfires all year, with a special emphasis on being staffed and ready for the drier months,” said Ellis. ” We essentially double our firefighting forces going into the summer, when wildfire risk is highest.”

Readiness activities include:

  • Contracts and agreements for firefighting equipment, aircraft and other resources have been signed
  • A new policy governing use of remotely piloted aerial vehicles (also known as drones or UAVs) has been adopted. These systems will support fire protection and natural resource management.
  • Hiring of seasonal firefighters is underway. New firefighters will attend training at ODF and interagency fire schools across the state in June.
  • Permanent and returning firefighters will take fire line refresher training over the next two months.
  • Hundreds of miles of fire hose have been cleaned and rolled, ready for use statewide.

Last year ODF had great success testing infrared technology. Carried on aerial vehicles, the equipment was able to see through heavy smoke on two Oregon wildfires – Horse Prairie and Eagle Creek. These systems provide sharp images and real-time fire mapping for fire managers, boosting safety and tactical planning. This year ODF is incorporating these technologies into its toolkit.

ODF’s Aviation Manager Neal Laugle said the increasing use of various types of aircraft in recent years highlights the importance of keeping up with new technology to achieve the agency’s mission. “From detection to fire mapping and active wildfire suppression, aircraft continue to play a critical role in the fight to save lives, resources and property,” said Laugle.

In 2017 contracted aircraft flew 1,477 hours on firefighting missions for ODF, more than 100 hours above average, he said. For 2018 the agency has contracted the same number of aircraft as last year.

“We have 27 aircraft based across the state, including helicopters, fixed-wing detection planes, single-engine air tankers and a large airtanker, all of which we’ve secured for our exclusive use. We also have call-when needed agreements with a number of companies for additional firefighting aircraft. Among these agreements is one for the use of a 747 modified to carry 19,000 gallons of retardant should the situation warrant.”

ODF will continue to have access to aviation resources from other states and federal agencies upon request.

“Uncontrolled fires can be devastating. Our relationships with our partners are invaluable to support prevention and suppression efforts statewide,” said Ellis.

Using infrared to detect gaps in retardant coverage

One of Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft shot this infrared video of an air tanker making a drop on the 500-acre Hunter Fire southwest of Meeker, Colorado about five days ago. Heat from the fire shows up as white and water or retardant drops are dark grey or black. It appears that the air tanker is attempting to fill in a gap in a retardant line, but as you can see, incomplete coverage remains.

The air tanker is very hard to see — it’s just a little dot, but it becomes obvious when the retardant is released. This shows the value of an air attack ship having infrared capabilities; the crew can direct aircraft to fill in gaps in retardant lines, in addition to mapping the fire perimeter.

Single Engine Air Tankers are a very important tool in the firefighter’s tool box, but this also shows the value of large and very large air tankers. A much longer drop means fewer gaps to worry about.

Australian company maps fires down under

Above: An example of a fire map produced by the Air Affairs infrared mapping system.

A company with an unusual name, “Air Affairs”, has been mapping wildfires (or bush fires) in Australia since 1994. Not unlike the systems the U.S. Forest Service has been using since at least the 1970s, Air Affairs uses infrared line scanners to detect heat produced by the fires, even if they are apparently obscured by smoke.

That heat is then plotted on a georectified map and transmitted via a satellite link directly from the aircraft in a format compatible with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) used by the state fire authorities. The image data requires no further processing by fire personnel and is available for immediate use.

B200t line scanner
An Air Affairs Beechcraft B200T purpose modified for the infrared line scanner system.

Air Affairs has two line scanners. One is permanently mounted in the belly of a Beechcraft B200T. The other is a pod which can be attached to one of the company’s Learjets.

Interestingly, the USFS has two similar aircraft with line scanners — a Citation jet and a King Air.

lear jet line scanner
An Air Affairs Learjet outfitted with a customized pod containing infrared line scanning equipment.

Unmanned aircraft system goes on test flight over Paradise fire

The National Park Service announced on its Facebook page on Friday than an unmanned aircraft system, otherwise known as a drone, took a test flight over the Paradise fire at Olympic National Park to gather infrared data.

Here’s the park’s statement from the Facebook page: 

*****

An operational test of UAS on the Paradise fire at Olympic National Park took place recently. Learn more about the purpose of the flights and check out the footage.

Unmanned Aircraft System was a Success on the Paradise Fire

For the past week an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was utilized on the Paradise Fire. The system was demonstrating possible applications in wildland fire management and suppression. UAS’s can supplement manned aircraft, especially at times of reduced visibility due to smoky conditions and at night when manned firefighting aircraft may be limited in flying.

The primary goal of the UAS on the Paradise Fire was to gather infrared information. This information assisted fire officials in pinpointing the fires perimeter and identifying areas of intense heat. The extremely large old growth trees in the area of the Paradise Fire create a thick canopy that makes mapping the perimeter and observing hotspots from the air very difficult without infrared capabilities.

This was an operational demonstration provided by Insitu, Inc. with no direct cost to the government. The demonstration was one of a series of ongoing missions to further UAS use on wildland fire in national parks and is part of an interagency strategy for UAS integration into wildland fire support. The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allowed the use of their land for the aircraft launch and recovery site. The purpose of the demonstration was to show the capabilities and effectiveness of unmanned aircraft technology on wildland fires. The ultimate goal for UAS use on wildland fire is to supply incident management teams (IMT) with real-time data products, and information regarding fire size and growth, fire behavior, fuels, and areas of heat concentration. Additional applications, such as search and rescue and animal surveys, may be explored.

As the fire season continues and more wildfires burn throughout the west, manned aviation resources are spread thin across the country and have become very difficult to acquire. In addition to supplementing aerial resources, UAS’s are quieter than manned aircraft, use less fuel, and present a much lower risk to employees.

This was not the first UAS to be flown in the Olympic National Park. The park partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey in 2012 to monitor sediment transport in the Elwha River as part of the Elwha restoration project using a Raven UAS.

The ScanEagle UAS that was flown on the Paradise Fire weighed approximately 50 lbs with a wingspan of 10.2 feet. The UAS was only operated within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporary flight restriction (TFR) area. The TFR has been lifted.

One USFS infrared aircraft possibly on season-ending Injured Reserve

USFS infrared aircraft N149Z
USFS infrared aircraft N149Z at Phoenix in 2013

One of the two U.S. Forest Service infrared line-scanning aircraft, N149Z, has a serious maintenance issue that may take it out of service for the rest of the season. If it were an NFL player, it would be called season-ending Injured Reserve.

The Beechcraft Super King Air 200 (twin-turboprop) has a problem with the right engine mounting, which has not been completely evaluated yet, so it is difficult to estimate when it will be back in the air. But it could be out for the rest of the western wildfire season.

There are presently no privately owned infrared line-scanner aircraft on call when needed status.  If necessary, contract infrared services could be hired through an Emergency Equipment Rental Agreement by the local unit or the Geographic Area Coordination Center, as was done by the Lassen National Forest in 2012 on the Ponderosa Fire in northern California.

The other USFS IR plane is a twin-engine jet, N144Z, a Cessna Citation II. It continues to be in the starting lineup. Occasionally in past years they have outfitted a King Air B-90 with IR equipment.

Southern California adds to its helicopter fleet

San Diego County will be adding a third firefighting helicopter to their fleet, implementing one of the recommendations in a report on the 14 fires that broke out in May in the northern part of the county. The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday allocated $5.2 million for another helicopter to become part of the County Sheriff’s stable of aircraft.

Photo by San Diego County.

The Supervisors also approved contracting with the city of San Diego to use its night-flying helicopters for fighting fires or making rescues at night.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s office Astrea unit (Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies) currently operates the following helicopters:

  • One MD500D. This is the oldest in the fleet, the workhorse of ASTREA since the late 1980s. The “D” model will eventually be replaced with a more powerful helicopter.
  • Three MD500F, better suited for high altitude and high temperatures than the MD500D.
  • Two Bell 205 A1++, for fire and rescue
  • One Bell 407 equipped with a data-link antenna and associated hardware which makes it possible to pass a live video feed to ground personnel. It  is also equipped with a FLIR 8500 thermal imager with laser designator.

NPS presents award to FLIR

FLIR award NPS
Major J. Burks, Major S. Fear, Matt Birnbaum;FLIR Director of Sales, Jenny Brooks; FLIR Mid-Atlantic Territory Manager, Major C. Guddemi and Captain S. Booker. NPS photo.

On Friday, September 5, 2014, the United Stated Park Police, a division within the National Park Service, held an awards ceremony recognizing and honoring FLIR for their dedicated service. FLIR representatives and U.S. Park Police officials gathered at the “Eagle’s Nest” located in Anacostia Park to commemorate FLIR’s contributions and continued support with Inaugural celebrations, 4th of July celebrations, and numerous special events.

U.S. Park Police’s Eagle 2 helicopter is equipped with a FLIR 8500 infrared and color sensor that provides stable thermal imaging as well as color video that assists with a range of law enforcement and rescue operations.

Pioneers in thermal imaging FLIR Systems designs, develops, manufactures, markets, and distributes technologies that enhance perception and awareness.

More articles on Fire Aviation about the NPS’ Park Police aviation unit.