BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The MQ-9 Reaper has been instrumental in fighting the California wildfires, but it is Airmen of the 195th Air National Guard Wing who have been a vital part of fire suppression in California. With infrared technology, the MQ-9 can see through smoke and darkness as it flies over fire zones and gathers real time video. Airmen from the 222nd Intelligence Support Squadron and the 234th Intelligence Squadron process, analyze and distribute those videos to the firefighting teams on the ground.
When called to CA state activation, Airmen work as communications specialists, both out in the field and in the Processing, Assessment and Dissemination Cell located at Beale. They collect and analyze data around the clock to monitor trigger points, look for hot spots and keep watch over the firefighters and volunteers in areas affected by fires.
“Before the CA Air National Guard used the MQ-9 to gather data, a federal asset would fly over the fire area and give a rough outline of the fire,” said Maj. Nick Edwards, 222nd ISS director of operations. “Crews would come in after a long day and update a giant map every night. Now, Airmen can collect data and have it ready for the fire chiefs every 15 minutes.”
The Airmen responsible for collecting the video data from the MQ-9 are communication specialists from the 222nd ISS.
“To get this video to the incident commander at the incident site, it takes a team of about 3-4 communication specialists to set up antenna and other various radio equipment to pull this video down,” said Edwards, who is also the State of CA Joint Task Force Incident Awareness and Assessment commander. “Then they stream it onto the internet, so the PAD cell can see it. They will go absolutely anywhere they need to, any time of day.”
During state activation, the PAD cell Airmen located at Beale also stay extremely busy. They consistently receive MQ-9 video footage, which they analyze and send to the appropriate unit.
“I need to get the proper information to the right folks,” said Tech. Sgt. Matthew A. Rubio, 234th Intelligence Squadron intel operations specialist and PAD Cell lead. “I need to teach the Airman next to me who’s brand-new to my unit how to do the things I can do and how to push that information to the ground units.”
The PAD Cell can map a fire and provide the video footage to CAL FIRE every 15 minutes, Edwards said. The guys in the PAD Cell can draw those lines in near real-time and send it to the Geographic Information Systems trailer. All of the fire chiefs out on the line can access that and pull the latest maps for their section of the fire.
Consistently updated fire maps are needed for a variety of uses, including identifying hotspots, deciding when to evacuate neighborhoods and aiding firefighters on the fire line.
“When there’s a fire, CAL FIRE will set up evacuation trigger points,” said Edwards. “For example, they know that if a fire hits a particular ridge, they can’t stop it from going into that community. I will give those trigger points to the PAD cell. If they see one, I need to know so I can alert CAL FIRE to start the evacuation process.”
PAD Cell fire map information is also used in areas that have already been evacuated.
“We had spotted a hotspot in someone’s yard,” Edwards said. “We relayed that to the Incident Commander and ground operations and said ‘Hey, it looks like an active fire’. They went back in and they were able to stop it.”
By watching where the fire is going, the videos are used to keep an eye on firefighters as they fight the fires at the site.
“We will provide over watch for hotshot crews,” Edwards said. “On the Ferguson fire, the IC said they will only have hotshots in the field if they have IAA coverage overhead. We can watch their back and watch that fire move and be sure they don’t get boxed in.”
The safety of CA residents and the protection of property are two important parts of CA ANG mission. It is evident how much 195th Wing Airmen have helped the residents of CA, shown by their vital roles in fire suppression.
“We are always here,” said Rubio. “This is our home and we are ready. We have people who care. We have people who are willing. We are here to help, so call us.”