SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Four New York National Guard Airmen made a big difference in California's effort to contain 27 massive wildfires this summer.
Three MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft crewmembers and a tactical air controller apprentice supported MQ-9 flights launched by California's 163rd Attack Wing Sept. 1-30.
The remotely piloted aircraft penetrated fierce firestorms to provide real-time, full-motion video of the fires to first responders, mapping the fire lines and providing damage assessments, according to 163rd Attack Wing officials.
The Airmen – pilot 1st Lt. Nicole Clay from the 174th Attack Wing in Syracuse, pilot 1st Lt. Timothy Morgan and sensor operator Tech. Sgt. Andrew Pajak, assigned to the 107th Attack Wing in Niagara Falls – were joined by Senior Airman Matthew Kohlmyer, a Tactical Air Control Party Airman assigned to the 274th Air Support Operations Squadron in Syracuse, part of the 107th Attack Wing. Kohlmyer acted as a liaison between firefighters and aircrews.
The MQ-9, designed to provide extensive loiter time for enhanced reconnaissance and attack capabilities against adversaries overseas, brings unique capabilities to the 18,000 firefighters battling wildfires for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
During the September mission, there were 7,982 wildfires burning more than 3.6 million acres and damaging or destroying 7,630 structures, according to Cal Fire.
On the ground, Kohlmyer helped direct aircraft to critical areas and advised firefighters and emergency personnel about MQ-9 aircraft capabilities.
The information gathered from the aircraft, flown high above the smoke and fire, mapped the spread of fires and assisted firefighters in planning containment efforts.
"The mission involved fire mapping and tracing, hot spot surveillance, damage assessment, helping emergency crew coordination and supporting evacuation for people and animals in affected communities," Clay said.
Cal Fire has employed Reapers from the 163rd Attack Wing to control fires annually since 2017, with special approvals from the Department of Defense.
With the extensive fires across California in 2020, the state requested additional crews from eight National Guard states to expand flight operations.
"At this point (Sept. 22), we've flown over 24 different fires," said Air National Guard Maj. Lee Nichols, senior intelligence officer in the 163d Operations Group. "That's meant doubling our support of any year in the past."
The New York pilots and sensor operator helped California employ three aircraft simultaneously, reflecting the high demand for wildfire information 24 hours a day.
"The guest help has been hugely instrumental to surging to three lines," said Capt. Eric Jeppsen, 196th Attack Squadron chief of current operations. "The timing has been difficult."
"Supporting this effort is the definition of being a true, on-the-call Guardsmen," Clay said. "It feels amazing to be able to assist emergency personnel while on the ground and support a fellow Guard base when they need additional crews."
The contribution of the New York crew members saved lives over Labor Day weekend when MQ-9 flight operations over the Creek Fire near Fresno identified potential helicopter landing zones to evacuate nearly 400 people trapped by fires.
The MQ-9 provides a significant advantage, Clay said.
"Being on the ground is a completely different perspective than in the air. You work with what is in front of you and often have delayed, out of date information to work from," Clay said.
"During the Cali fires, with the MQ-9 overhead, I was able to get a bird's-eye view of the fires, pass real-time information to our intel (analysts) so they can quickly feed the incident commanders or personnel on the ground. This greatly increased situational awareness and effectiveness to combat the fires' spread and quickly evacuate civilians from danger."
Reaper imagery helped support the safe landing of Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters from the California Army National Guard's 40th Combat Aviation Brigade's dramatic rescue, according to the California Guard's Joint Operations Center.
"The infrared provided the ability to 'see' through the smoke and get a great view of the fire lines," Clay said. "The MQ-9 was able to stay in the fight while other aircraft were pushed too far out due to smoke and pyro clouds forming from the fires."
Jeppsen has also flown fire missions as part of the expanded flight operations as an MQ-9 pilot.
"We're thousands of feet above a fire so fierce it was generating its own weather, in this case, causing thunderstorms. Our role was helping intel determine where the helicopters needed to go."
Morgan also recounted the contribution of the MQ-9 locating a fire flare-up behind a fire line. Alerting firefighters and responders, they redirected evacuation and fire control measures to prevent further spread.
"We're proud of our personnel and what they accomplished in working with our counterparts in the California National Guard," said Maj. Gen. Ray Shields, adjutant general of New York. "We are always prepared to lend a helping hand and our expertise whenever we're called upon to assist a state in need."