Pentagon Tech to Help Fight Wildfires

The Defense Department agreed to provide information from a Cold War-era military satellite to help spot new wildfires in California.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the California for All Emergency Management Preparedness Summit, Monday, June 3, 2019, in Sacramento.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the California for All Emergency Management Preparedness Summit, Monday, June 3, 2019, in Sacramento.
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

California has a new level of cooperation with the Pentagon as it tries to avoid another deadly, destructive fire season, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday, downplaying friction with President Donald Trump's administration.

The Defense Department has agreed to provide information from a Cold War-era military satellite to help spot new wildfires, and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan gave the California National Guard blanket approval through year's end to use unmanned drones to map fires, count destroyed houses and spot survivors.

"We finally got a breakthrough with the Pentagon," Newsom said as he opened a day-long Emergency Management Preparedness Summit intended to help state and local officials better prepare for wildfires and other disasters.

Officials are searching for ways to avoid fires like the one that devastated the Northern California city of Paradise last fall, killing 85 people. Utilities are preparing to shut down power during periods of high winds and low humidity to stop wildfires from sparking, while Newsom is seeking nearly $1 billion in new money to prevent and fight wildfires in the budget lawmakers are considering.

Adjutant Gen. David Baldwin, who oversees both the air and army branches of the California Guard, said state officials discovered "some satellite technology that was developed in the Cold War" that can spot small wildfires before they might otherwise grow large enough to raise alarms.

"We'll have soldiers and airmen monitoring those around the clock to cue CalFire faster once those fires start," he said, referring to California's state firefighting agency.

Trump has been harshly critical of California's efforts to thin forests to help deter wildfires, but Newsom said the state is "finding ways to work well with the current administration," belying tension between the Democratic governor and Republican president.

"We're just working more collaboratively with the federal government on technology and procuring access to technology that we haven't had access before, for fires primarily," Newsom said. "Leading edge technology — that's the bottom line."

In addition to the satellite technology, Shanahan is allowing the National Guard to use its unmanned drones on any CalFire operation through year's end. Previously, state officials had to get separate Defense Department approval each time they wanted to use the drones, though they've been used periodically since 2013.

"Now they're pretty much integrated into our standard operating procedure for response because they're so useful both for fire mapping and for damage assessment," Baldwin said.

The individual authorizations sometimes took several days, said Rhys Williams, Newsom's senior adviser on emergency preparedness and management.

"It's really important since it's real time eyes in the sky," Williams said.

The drones can stay aloft for about 22 hours, compared to four or five hours for a manned aircraft, Baldwin said. They can peer through clouds, smoke and darkness with radar, cameras, infrared vision and other so-called multispectral sensors.

Moreover, they can instantly link the images to maps and relay the information to fire managers as they make decisions on ordering evacuations or moving resources.

They can not only map the flames but help officials more quickly determine which homes and structures have been damaged or destroyed, something that used to require officials to drive through neighborhoods: "We're able to do it in a matter of hours or days, instead of days or weeks," Baldwin said, speeding up disaster funding requests.

This year's blanket approval is a step in the right direction, Baldwin said, but he said the Defense Department should simply cede authority over the drones to the Guard.

"We think we can do a lot more with the unmanned systems if the Pentagon would just delegate the authority to us at the state level. We'll be able to respond faster and maybe save more lives," Baldwin said.

The new technologies sound like they "could have a great social impact and net social good, but it's really the operators of these technologies that raises a few flags," said Camille Fischer, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for privacy protections. "What is the real oversight to make sure that these technologies are only being used by CalFire and during fire season? We've seen multiple instances of cross-mission creep."

The Guard mainly uses MQ-9 Reapers, a propeller-driven drone about the size of a four-seat Cessna aircraft, said Col. Victor Teal, the Guard's operations director. It has more than 20 of the Reapers at a Riverside County base.

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