Through the smoke

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Sean Campbell
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Ash fills the air of southwest Oregon, producing clouds that reach up to 16,000 feet overhead. To the naked eye, it is an opaque mass hiding any view of the burning ground below; to the crew of the RC-26, everything is visible.

The RC-26 at the 141st Air Refueling Wing is helping to map major wildfires all across the U.S.

“We have three mission sets,” said Lt. Col Jeremy Higgins, 141st Operations Group RC-26 program manager. “The first is mapping for the National Interagency Fire Center, making Geographic Information System plot maps so that firefighters have a usable product to navigate on the ground. The second is picking up hot spots that are outside the fire line. And lastly is the Distributed Real Time Infrared mission [and] sending information to Joint Terminal Attack Controllers.”

The RC-26 uses an infrared camera to map out fire lines for active wildfires as part of the Distributed Real-Time Infrared mission. After a mission system operator maps the wildfire with the camera, the map file is then transferred to a laptop where it is sent down to JTAC Airmen on the ground.

JTACs provide vital close air support integration for all U.S. military branches and allied nations. The training and preparation one undergoes is strenuous, combining many of the top specialized schools from both the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.

“They work right next to the decision-makers who are the incident commanders,” said Higgens. “The JTACs are the ones providing them with the info we gather.”

There is about one JTAC and 20 firefighters in each area of a fire. JTAC Airman are equipped with two screens and a rover receiver, Higgins said. On one screen, they see a map that shows the plane location, and on the other a video feed of the fire from the plane’s camera. JTACs receive maps and other information from the RC-26 and use it to monitor the fire line from the ground, allowing less people to be put in harm’s way.

Before RC-26s were used to map fires, firefighters would drive out along the fire line to map out the location, which took hours to complete. This put firefighters in extreme danger and the information collected would be 25-36 hours out of date.

The RC-26 aircrew from Fairchild flew 21 sorties from Aug. 12 to 30 and detected 91 fires with 14 mapped areas. Since late August, the crews have been focused on supporting the DRTI mission, mapping the Chetco Bar fire in southwest Oregon.

A big part of why the DRTI 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.

“We are not changing how we fight fires, we are making better fireman,” said Mr. Joel Kerley, National Interagency Fire Center military liaison. “An informed fireman is a more effective fireman.”

The Air National Guard aircrew members of the RC-26 are scheduled to be activated through September to help map and locate wildfires.