By Master Sgt. Joshua C. Allmaras, 124th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 05, 2016
GOWEN FIELD, ID (Sept. 16, 2016) -- When one thinks of the word dirty, mud might come to mind or even a little kid who has just finished eating spaghetti. On a few large fires this summer the words Distributed Real-time Infrared, better known as DRTI and pronounced dirty, meant something completely different to the firefighters on the ground. This Air National Guard platform allowed interagency firefighters and commanders the ability to have real time infrared imagery at their fingertips.
The packaged capability is comprised of two sections, an aerial and ground team. The aerial section flies in an RC-26 which provides the overhead imagery products while the ground section breaks up into smaller teams and works directly with various customers on the ground.
"We are serving two distinct sets of customers," said Lt Col. Shawn Scott, the DRTI program manager. "At the tactical level we are providing real time video directly down to the supported commander, be those division commanders or branch commanders. These equate to squadron or group commanders in the Air Force. We come in and provide them with initial products such as the perimeter of the fire. It gives them the eyes they don't necessarily have due to the tremendous amount of smoke in the atmosphere, or because of the terrain, or even the vegetation."
This information is critical to the firefighters on the ground.
"There is a lot of value in having your folks on the ground. Being able to have eyes in areas you don't have really good eyes on due to smoke and visibility, and knowing exactly where the fire has progressed," said Billy Gardunio, a forest fire management specialist who flew in the back of the RC-6 aircraft as a subject matter expert.
The frontline firefighter on the ground is not the only customer for this mission.
"Our second customer is on the strategic side," said Scott. "We take all those fire perimeters we have been collecting and we transmit them in near real time via email back to the planners at the command post, the ICP [incident command post], so they have the most current map available for their planning cycle."
One of the unique capabilities of the National Guard is the ability to take their wartime mission skillsets and adapt them to benefit the homeland.
"One of the big things about the aircrew was their experience and expertise," said Gardunio. "Having worked FLIR [forward looking infrared] for less than 25 hours and to be able to see someone who had over 10,000 hours of sensor time, and the ability for their eye to pick up on stuff rather quickly was very cool."
There is a great value being able to support the firefighters.
"You guys are another source of info," said Jeff Ohs, branch two director from Long Beach Fire. "You can't put a value on this type of intel, especially from the safety aspect."
There have been many successes during this activation.
"One of the most incredible successes we had with people in the state was supporting law enforcement," said Scott. "When they initiated large areas of evacuations there were hundreds of miles of really gnarly, rocky, dirt roads in which deputies in Boise County were going to be responsible for evacuating campers. The evacuation orders came out on a Saturday, which is a bad time in the summer. We found that we could use the sensor to sweep those areas and make sure there were no campers back there. We accomplished their mission in three hours, which we were told would have taken 24 man hours to completely evacuate those backcountry roads, if they could."
One of the biggest fire detection successes was in California.
"On the Sobaranes Fire we identified a large spot fire," said Scott. "This was a big deal because the fire significantly accelerated when the firefighters were going to take tactical actions on the ground. They had a strategy to back burn, but they thought they had more time. When we called to do the debrief, it sounded very busy in the background. The operations chief said, 'it's a madhouse here because we are accelerating our timeframe for beginning burn operations based on the information you provided, that we had no idea about.' The fire was a lot closer than they had anticipated."
Timely information is critical in firefighting.
"With the Forest Service we have a NIROPS [National Infrared Operations] infrared ship that flies at night that gives us an update on fire size and intensity, but you have to wait until the next night for an update," said Gardunio. "This asset [DRTI] provided a more timely update of what the fire was doing during the peak burning hours."
The DRTI asset has been in a proof of concept phase until this year, when the Forest Service provided money to support the mission. This is the first fire season it has been officially used to support interagency firefighters. As with most missions there are specific objectives.
"The objective isn't for the Air National Guard to show that we can come out and be the provider of something nobody else can do," said Scott. "The overall objective of this program is to showcase capabilities that we have been using in the close air support community for over a decade now that potentially have applications in the wildland firefighting mission. We stand by and are ready to help if called, but that's not the overall objective."
The IDANG has received a lot of support through this whole process.
"I really appreciate the support we have received from the interagency community at NIFC [National Interagency Fire Center] and the Forest Service," said Scott. "We have taken this from the good idea fairy stage to the point that I have guys on the mountain helping firefighters and that has taken a lot of key people."
The DRTI platform has been used in support of fires in both Idaho and California this past summer. The mission ended August 30.