Predator Drone Joins Yosemite Wildfire Fight

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Crews battling the enormous wildfire in California are getting help from a National Guard Predator drone. The unmanned aircraft gives ground commanders a better handle on what’s now called the Rim Fire.

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Since it broke out on August 17, the Rim Fire has expanded to more than 192,000 acres in and around Yosemite National Park, making it one of the state’s largest ever. Fire crews usually rely on helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to survey the ground from the air and spot flare-ups. But helicopters and planes need regular refueling, have difficulty in heavy smoke, and need to be grounded at night.

Drones, however, can just keep going. While unmanned aerial vehicles have been employed to assist with wildfire surveying in the past, Brian Skoloff and Tracie Cone from the Associated Press reported today that this will be the longest sustained mission by a drone in California to broadcast information to firefighters in real time.

The Predator drone is expected to stay over the burn area for 22-hour periods. The size of a small Cessna, it’s being operated by the Riverside National Guard from the Victorville Airport and has a manned escort whenever it flies outside the burn zone, according to the AP. Officials said the drone is only being used to monitor the fire.

With help from the Predator drone, firefighting goes high-tech. The unmanned aircraft sends birds-eye images to commanders in real time. The aircraft have infrared heat sensors and a swiveling camera operated by a remote pilot, Julie Cart reported in the LA Times. This all helps fire bosses make crucial decisions about resource allocation quickly.

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Firefighting officials are saying today that the Rim Fire is spreading more slowly. KPCC’s helpful fire tracker shows containment at 30 percent now. Although the fire threatened San Francisco’s water supply, crews are pushing it back. With thousands of fire personnel — and a drone — on top of it, the blaze could be fully contained by September 10.

Photo: An image of the wildfire in Yosemite taken Wednesday morning by NOAA GOES West. Credit: Stuart Rankin.

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