163rd blazes a DOMOPS trail with MQ-9 fire missions

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Gregory Solman
  • 163rd Attack Wing Public Affairs

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF.—When the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing joined the fight against the Thomas Fire ravaging nearby Ventura County, the mission hit close to home, literally and figuratively.


After years in the heat of battle and the conflagration of foreign wars, the wing’s airmen take special satisfaction in fighting for their hometowns. “This mission is the heart of DOMOPS [domestic operations],” says Col. Sean Navin, 163rd wing commander. “We’re Californians. We live and train here, and we’re right next to our neighbors, civilians, helping them survive. We are part of this, one with the community.”


The wing launched an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) Dec. 6, and has loitered above the blaze since. The imaging ability of the Reaper proved immediately invaluable as it came upon the scene, piercing layers of smoke and delivering detailed full-motion video views of the devastation from 27,000 feet. An earlier attempt by firefighting agencies to map the perimeter, fanning west of Santa Paula toward Ojai and Ventura, had become dangerously dated.


"When we got on station and remapped the fire for them, we realized that the fire had exponentially increased, almost three miles in some places, and up to eight miles further west, and it was still moving pretty quickly,” according to Capt. Michele Garcia, mission intelligence coordinator and 160th Operations Group senior intelligence officer. “They were unaware that it has spread that far, that fast. We were able to provide them with the newest map of the perimeter within the first three hours.”


By the third day of practically uninterrupted operations—three sorties averaging 18 hours each—the wing’s mission has included perimeter mapping; spotting flares started by windblown embers, landing miles from the main blaze; and monitoring “areas of concern, where there is a suspicion that the fire could bust beyond a perimeter,” Garcia says.


Fierce Santa Ana winds, with gusts of 80 knots rivaling the Reaper’s methodical, fuel-sipping pace, complicate takeoffs and landings while making the case for RPAs, flown by skilled pilots. "There's not much you can do about the wind. If it's choppy out there, it's going to bounce you,” says Lt. Col. Daniel Stromberg, 160th Attack Squadron commander. “There's nothing the pilot can do but try to find smooth air by changing altitudes or finding smooth areas. Luckily, we haven't had to do that. It's been pretty smooth air over the fires. So we've been able to give pretty good coverage."


The total wing effort includes assets on the ground: Maj. Mike Baird and Master Sgt. Kirkland Hess deployed as liaison officers to the Thomas Fire incident command post, coordinating between military and civilian agencies, as well as the State Operations Center at the 163rd’s home base.


The wing blazed the trail for deploying RPAs for fire missions in 2013, on the notorious Rim Fire mission in the Sierra Nevada, and sharpened its skills as recently as October, battling the fires in Napa and Sonoma counties in northern California. Navin anticipates a future when utilizing RPAs on the toughest fire missions could become routine. “[Former 163rd Attack Wing commander] Brig. Gen. Hessheimer looked way into the future, realizing that the MQ-9 Reaper was going to be a DOMOPS darling, and it is,” Navin concludes. “It spends all this time in the air. It gives real-time feedback. I think we are at that point where The Adjutant General [Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin] and his staff are in love with the MQ-9, and rightly so, because of all the data they get.”


Even in the thick of the mission, Navin has the next phase of RPA DOMOPS mapped out. “We know we’re going to have fires, every year. What we’d like to do at the 163rd is gather all the lessons learned from the last several fires and set up an operational instruction, if you will, for DOMOPS.” The analysis and documentation of the wing’s benchmark capabilities would become a resource to consult the moment a blaze breaks out, saving time, and lives.


“It's opening eyes,” adds Stromberg. “I think people realize more and more that we are very valuable to many different operations. We've always talked about search-and-rescue, and we've been launched to try and locate lost hikers, and now this is the third fire that we've supported. And they can see that RPAs are doing a great job of mapping the fire lines and looking for hotspots beyond the fire lines. There is definitely value in our domestic missions, and our ability to serve domestically is just going to go up after things like this.”