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Michigan's Citizen Airmen support California wildfire response

Wildland fires burn during a mid-August night near Susanville, Calif. A series of wildland fires has destroyed more than 30,000 acres of land around Susanville. (Courtesy Photo)

Wildland fires burn during a mid-August night near Susanville, Calif. A series of wildland fires has destroyed more than 30,000 acres of land around Susanville. (Courtesy Photo)

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. -- Recently, members of the 110th Operations Group at Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Mich., volunteered to assist firefighters battling the California wildfires that began late August 2020. This year alone, more than four million acres have burned in California, leaving families and communities in ruins.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) manages fire protection and stewardship of over 31 million acres of California's privately-owned wildlands. Approximately 12,000 firefighters are on ground battling the California wildfires. Cal Fire is receiving support from above with the first of its kind domestic MQ-9 mission.

Three intelligence analysts with the 110th Operations Group deployed to California to assist fire teams with aerial footage from the MQ-9 Reaper.

The MQ-9 Reaper is a multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that is employed primarily in combat. Secondarily, is it used to collect intelligence information, and has been a valued asset in assessing the California wildfires.

“They are essentially using their combat experience and applying that to the Cal Fire mission,” said Tech. Sgt. Matt Van Dercreek, 163rd Attack Wing intelligence operations superintendent of the MQ-9 mission.

For these Airmen, the Cal Fire mission was an opportunity to shed positive light on the aircraft's capabilities.

“When you are supporting a domestic mission, helping citizens in crisis and seeing an immediate impact, that is truly rewarding,” said Tech. Sgt. Brian Hyllengren, 110th Wing mission intelligence coordinator.

While pilots fly the MQ-9 remotely, mission intelligence coordinators relay the information analyzed from the footage to incident commanders on ground.

“We coordinated with liaisons and firefighters on ground to map fire lines,” said Senior Airman Teigen Betts, 110th mission intelligence coordinator, “effectively tracking growth to contain wildfires before they spread further.”

Wind and smoke made visibility a challenge. However the bird’s eye view from the MQ-9 Reaper with thermal technology gave a clear view of the wildfires direction.

“If the wind picked up and carried embers to nearby dry brush,” said Senior Airman Steven McCarty, 110th Operations Group mission intelligence coordinator “we were able to quickly direct Cal Fire to the location to prevent more fires from starting.”

Cal Fire also conducts controlled burns to cut off wildfires from spreading beyond a certain point.

“We would monitor the areas of the controlled burn, to notify Cal Fire if rogue embers would go beyond the fire line,” said Betts.

The instantaneous intelligence of the MQ-9 mission has helped Cal Fire contain current wildfires, as well as prevent more.

“They accumulated over 80 hours of fly time,” said Van Dercreek, “their effort was extremely instrumental in supporting six different ongoing wildfires.”

Firefighters on the ground expressed how thankful they are for the added support of the MQ-9 mission and its personnel.

“The most rewarding part was seeing the fruits of our labor,” said Betts, “and hearing from the ground how grateful the firefighters were.”

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