VENTURA, Calif. — Battling California's wildfires from the sky is taking on a new meaning as massive blazes, such as the 237,500-acre Thomas fire, become increasingly common and incomprehensibly vast.
For just the third time, the state firefighting agency is collaborating with a unit of the California Air National Guard and using military wartime drones to provide real-time photo and video about fire activity.
Operated by the 163d Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, the Reaper MQ-9 circling 5 miles above transmits timely information — including spot-fire detection — to commanders on the ground.
It's the latest evolution in 21st-century firefighting.
"It's out of the way," said Scott McLean, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "It has the capabilities to see that 30,000-foot level, figuratively (and literally) speaking. It enables our incident commander, our operations folks, to see the big picture all at once."
Blending drones and disaster
Unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, usually are forbidden around wildfires. That doesn't always dissuade hobbyists who have forced firefighters to ground planes and helicopters amid safety concerns.
A 54-year-old Prescott Valley, Ariz., man was arrested earlier this year on suspicion of flying a drone near the Goodwin fire. And in Los Gatos, Calif., a drone operator forced a helicopter to temporarily halt operations in Santa Clara County.
On the flip side, small drones have been added to firefighting and search-and-rescue toolkits in Grand Canyon National Park. The program, among the first in the National Park system, was launched earlier this year to enhance monitoring of fires and bolster searches for missing hikers.
The drones flying over the Thomas fire aren't your hobbyist aircraft.
Reaper MQ-9s have a 66-foot wingspan and weigh almost 5,000 pounds, making them more comparable to a Cessna. It takes about a dozen members of the National Guard unit to get the plane to its typical cruising altitude, 28,000 feet, said Col. Sean Navin, commander of the 163d Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base.
Once it is in the air, a team of five guides and monitors the aircraft over the burn area.
"Everybody and their brother is connected here to get this machine airborne," Navin told the USA TODAY Network on Tuesday.
The Reaper is larger and more powerful than its better-known cousin, the MQ-1 Predator. It is heralded for its significant loiter time and can remain airborne for 15 hours. Teams on the Thomas fire have been using a second aircraft, allowing for a 24-hour eye in the sky above Ventura and Santa Barbara.
The drone is equipped with high-tech infrared cameras that can capture full-motion high-resolution video. Fire analysts and incident managers then study the images to better gauge fire behavior and where to deploy resources. Teams on the ground can spot a wind-tossed ember and divert resources to the scene before a small spot fire erupts into a conflagration.
"It’s quite a chain of people to provide fire coverage," Navin said. "But without question, it's worth every second."
How it's different
Firefighters have relied on eyes in the sky for decades.
But those eyes have typically been nearsighted at best.
Historically, fixed-wing spotter planes have circled wildfires at high altitudes, coordinating everything from helicopter water drops to smoke-jumper deployments.
Those crews capture and transmit photo and video, too, but there are limitations.
Planes rely on fuel, so they can't stay airborne for as long or as continuously. Scouts can't see everything a wide-angle high-definition camera can.
And locating spot fires in their earliest stages can be limited at best, especially during blazes such as the Thomas fire that blanket areas in thick smoke.
"When you have smoke and that type of thing where you don't have a visual, that makes things difficult," McLean said. "This is a tool that flies pretty much in anything and has the capability to look through those smoky conditions."
What happens next?
It took a week for the U.S. secretary of Defense to authorize the use of a MQ-1 Predator drone during the Rim fire in California's Sierra Nevada in 2013. Approval came a bit quicker during the team's second deployment, to October's wine-country wildfires in Northern California.
Teams launched a Reaper over the Thomas fire on Dec. 6 — 36 hours after it started — thanks in large part to a more streamlined approval process, already existing agreements and a bit more established track record, Navin said.
"The MQ-9 in this fire is, without question, directly responsible for saving a few places that could have easily been burned," he said. "They can see it moving and marching in real time. I think that data itself has really been invaluable."
The team is creating a "playbook" that more clearly outlines how often Reapers take flight over fires and other natural disasters — the drones flew over parts of Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
There are talks about expanding the program to other states prone to large-scale natural disasters, Navin said.
"The role will not diminish," Navin said. "It is, quite frankly, a domestic-operations darling.”
Follow Jason Pohl on Twitter: @pohl_jason