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Military Reconnaissance Plane Enlisted In Northwest Wildfire Fight

Senior Airman Sean Campbell
U.S. Air Force
The Washington Air National Guard RC-26 sits at Medford Airport last September before taking off to map the Chetco Bar fire in southwest Oregon.

For the third year in a row, a military reconnaissance aircraft is joining the battle against Pacific Northwest wildfires. This specialized plane can locate new fires from many miles away.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise asked for the military's help tracking the 29 current large fires and constant string of new starts across Oregon, Washington and Idaho. The Washington Air National Guard had one twin-engine turboprop available, equipped with infrared camera, mapping systems and video. The RC-26 aircraft is normally used for counter-drug operations in this hemisphere and for intelligence gathering, special operations support and reconnaissance in overseas conflict zones.

The lieutenant colonel overseeing this mission said his plane was tasked with searching for new fire starts, including from lightning strikes. The infrared camera can also penetrate smoke and haze to provide accurate mapping of known wildfires. The plane usually flies with a three person crew -- a pilot, co-pilot and sensor operator.

“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  Lt. Col. Jeremy Higgins, 141st Operations Group RC-26 program manager in an article on the wing's website. “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.”

The RC-26 launched its initial wildfire overflights from its home at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane on July 22nd. Washington Air National Guard Major Zach Wagner said the reconnaissance plane has since been repositioned several times to expand its range to include California and Nevada.

As of Tuesday evening, Wagner said the plane was in southwestern Oregon keeping tabs on numerous stubborn forest fires there. He said the crew had several opportunities to demonstrate their capability to stream live video from over a blaze down to fire commanders on the ground.

"On our detection missions, we've found 11 new fires," said Wagner in an interview, summarizing the first week and a half of flying. That's in addition to mapping known fires 30 times -- some of those counting the same fire mapped on different days. The RC-26 mostly flies during the day, but can also launch at night.

In the U.S., the RC-26 is solely flown by the Air National Guard. It is a military variant of a civilian plane no longer in production known as the Fairchild Metroliner when it was used by small regional airlines.

Last August, NIFC mobilized two military RC-26 planes to fly day and night missions over fires in Oregon and Washington. The military aircraft augment camera-carrying private planes chartered by the U.S. Forest Service and state forestry agencies for the same purpose.

UPDATED, 9 p.m. Tuesday, to include additional detail on range of overflights and results.