An unmanned military Predator drone, similar to those that have seen action in Afghanistan, has been called in to battle against a raging California wildfire that has scorched an area almost as large as New York City.
The enormous Rim Fire, which has charred 200,000 acres in 13 days, has unleashed a smoky haze that has worsened air quality more than 100 miles away in Nevada. High school athletics officials canceled all football games Friday and Saturday across eight counties in both states as the air quality index hovered around the "unhealthy" level.
The drone, an MQ-1 aircraft remotely piloted by the 163rd Wing of the California National Guard, is helping to provide round-the-clock information to firefighters.
"The drone is providing data directly back to the incident commander, allowing him to make quick decisions about which resources to deploy and where," California fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
Previously, crews tackling the blaze relied on helicopters that needed to refuel every two hours, for their air information.
But the drone, which is the size of a small Cessna plane, will remain over the burn zone for up to 22 hours at a time, its fitted cameras providing real-time video on the fire's movement.
Pilots will operate the craft remotely from March Air Reserve Base in Riverside. It will be escorted by a manned aircraft.
Officials were eager to point out that the images are being used only to aid in the effort to contain the fire, which has become California's sixth-largest on record.
It is not the first time that drones have been called in to battle a blaze.
In 2009, a NASA Predator equipped with an infrared imaging sensor helped the U.S. Forest Service assess damage from a fire in Angeles National Forest.
The previous year, a drone capable of detecting hot spots helped firefighters assess movement of a series of wildfires stretching from Southern California's Lake Arrowhead to San Diego.
Crews made some progress on Day 13 of the Rim Fire and containment was raised to 32 percent. But at least 4,500 structures remain threatened, as do the power and water utilities for San Francisco and the Bay Area.
The Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association, which oversees high school sports in counties along both sides of the Nevada-California border, canceled football games and all other outdoor events Friday and Saturday "due to the wildfire smoke in Northern Nevada and California," it said in a statement.
While air quality improved to "moderate" Thursday, "we expect to be in the 'Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups' and 'Unhealthy' ranges tonight and tomorrow," environmental officials in Washoe County, Nev. — one of the eight where games were canceled — said in a status report.
The Rim Fire started Aug. 17 and quickly exploded in size. It will likely burn for months, possibly until California's dry season ends this fall, Hugh Safford, a regional ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, told The Associated Press.
While this summer's massive fires may have fed a perception that wildfires are getting worse every year, the National Interagency Fire Center reported Wednesday that 2013 has recorded the fewest wildfires by Aug. 28 in the past 10 years and the second-smallest number of acres burned — about 3.6 million, half of last year's acreage.
M. Alex Johnson of NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published August 29 2013, 3:32 AM