September 6–You’re a fire boss trying to contain an out-of-control wildfire in mountainous terrain, and you literally can’t see the forest for the burning trees. Dense smoke chokes the air, making it nearly impossible to have a good sense of where and how quickly a fire is moving.
Such was the case for firefighters battling this August’s Yosemite Rim fire in California, which had spread to cover more than 134,000 acres in less than two weeks. They needed a bird’s eye view of what was happening – in a hurry.
Enter the California Air National Guard and the FAA.
The fire’s Incident Commander contacted the California governor’s office, which in turn contacted the Department of Defense and the FAA for help. The California Air National Guard sent the FAA a request on Sunday, August 25 to fly an MQ-1 unmanned aircraft over the Yosemite fire.
In just a few hours, the FAA issued an emergency Certificate of Authorization (COA) approving the proposed operation. The MQ-1 began sending back invaluable real-time images the following Wednesday morning, and firefighters were able to make significant progress in slowing the fire’s advance.
Timing is critical in emergencies like this, that’s why the FAA has a special protocol for handling and expediting such applications.
In 2012 the FAA quickly approved an emergency COA for humanitarian assistance to use a small UAS for an ice survey near the harbor of Nome, Alaska in January. Nome was running low on fuel and a tanker ship was having a hard time reaching the harbor because of thick ice. The three-pound, unmanned aircraft sent back photos that the tanker crew used to get as close to shore as possible.
For the Yosemite Rim fire, prior planning and standard procedures, coupled with an excellent relationship with the Department of Defense and the California Air National Guard, made it possible for the FAA to quickly deploy this sophisticated tool to aid in the firefighting efforts.