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Flying above the flames


U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Andy Rathbum, a RC-26 mission system operator assigned to the141st Operations Group, Washington Air National Guard, maps the Chetco Bar fire in southern Oregon using the RC-26s camera Sept. 2, 2017, Brookings, Oregon. Before the RC-26 were used to map fires, firefighters would drive out along the fire line to map out its location, taking hours to complete, putting the firefighters in danger and causing information to be 25-36 hours out of date. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Sean Campbell)


As of early September, the Chetco Bar fire in southwest Oregon burned more than 130,000 acres of forested area along with 25 structures. Just under 20,000 firefighters are currently deployed across the country fighting wildfires (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Sean Campbell)


The 141st Operations Group RC-26 sits at Medford Airport before taking off to map the Chetco Bar fire in southwest Oregon Sept. 2, 2017, Medford, Oregon. The RC-26 aircrew flew 21 sorties for a total of 71.3 hours Aug. 12-30, and detected 91 fires with 14 mapped areas. The RC-26’s camera can pick up a heat signature accurately up to three miles away. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Sean Campbell)


U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jacob Hughes, a joint terminal attack controller assigned to the 146th Air Support Operations Squadron, Idaho Air National Guard, receives information from the RC-26 aircrew Sept. 1, 2017, Brookings, Oregon. A big part of why the Distributed Real Time Infrared program is successful is the teamwork and communication between all of the different personnel involved, including JTACs, RC-26 aircrew, National Guard members and the nearly 20,000 firefighters currently fighting fires across the U.S. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Sean Campbell)


Sixteen thousand feet above the ground, an RC-26 aircraft from the 141st Air Refueling Wing maps out the perimeter of a nearly 200,000 acre wildfire with an infrared camera over southern Oregon.

Stagnant smoke blankets the entire region, making it impossible to see anything below, but the crew watching the IR monitor in the RC-26 can easily gather information and relay it to the joint terminal attack controllers from the 124th Air Support Operations Squadron in Boise, Idaho, who are embedded with the fire fighters on the ground.

 “The mission set we are currently supporting is the Distributed Real Time Infrared, or DRTI mission,” said Lt. Col. Jeremy Higgins, 141st Operations Group RC-26 program manager. “We use the infrared cameras to drop points around a fire and then send those to the Global Information System coordinators to plot and turn them into a workable product.”

A JTAC on the ground carries a ROVER, which stands for Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver, a terminal that displays sensor data and video from an airborne platform. The system allows ground crews to receive footage in near-real time.

Because of this ability, the first responders on the ground are able to determine their next move based on information they are receiving within minutes, not hours.

“In this situation, we exist to facilitate communication between airborne assets (the RC-26 crew) and the ground teams that need their support,” said Captain Robert Steiner, 124th ASOS air liaison officer. “The JTAC will educate and advise, then develop a plan of action with the customer [incident commander]. It is very important that the [incident commander] knows you can be relied on to deliver accurate and timely information, all without being a burden in the field.”

The 141st ARW has been working with the National Interagency Fire Center since the summer of 2016 to map known wild fires, detect potential fires and lightning strikes with IR camera equipment, and the DRTI mission.

“The camera can detect a small fire up to 50 miles away pretty easily; we can see if a fire is outside the containment lines or not,” said Higgins. “We can send coordinates, fire size, and behavior back to the NIFC and they can determine if they want to take action immediately or wait and see what the fire does.”

This information is not only invaluable to NIFC, but it can help to keep fire fighters on the ground out of harm’s way.

“Last year we had a team close to a fire, but no one knew exactly how close it was,” said Steiner. “The RC-26 crew checked and told us where it was within minutes and was able to signal about 30 minutes before the fire would reach them so they could evacuate. The fire took 32 minutes to get there.”

Normally, there is a National Infrared Operations Unit, or NIROPS, plane that flies up and down the west coast to detect fire activity, but it can’t cover every fire that is burning within four or five states. Because of that, the 141st was tasked from mid-August through the end of September in support of the DRTI mission.

During that time, the RC-26 crew flew seven days a week and completed 42 missions. They logged 137 flying hours, mapped 51 active fires and also detected 91 lightning strike fires.

 “It’s a great guard mission,” said Higgins. “Defending the lives and properties of our residents and those in the region.”