A California National Guard Predator drone has joined the 4,000 firefighters fighting the disastrous 12-day-old Yosemite Rim Fire in the Sierra Nevada.
The fire — which has burned through more than 192,000 acres — has already injured six of the 4,200 firefighters who have been fighting to contain the fire since its inception.
Containment has now reached 30 percent, but the fire is continuing to spread "at the equivalent pace of a fast walk." Authorities expect to fully contain the fire in three weeks, but project it will continue to burn for much longer than that.
The drone known as MQ-1 unmanned aircraft, is meant to "give them almost immediate views of any portion of the flames chewing through rugged forests in and around Yosemite National Park." The drone has already proved its worth by quickly alerting staff of a new flare-up miles away, which would otherwise have remained unseen for hours.
The plane is reportedly "the size of a small Cessna" and can fly over the affected areas for up to 22 hours each trip. During the 22 hours, fire commanders will be able to "monitor fire activity, determine the fire's direction of movement, the extent of containment and confirm new fires ignited by lightning or flying embers." Before the drone was brought on board, the fire commanders used information from helicopters that needed to be refueled every two hours.
Drones have been used in the past to map out fires (and collect other types of intelligence) but the use of the Predator in Sierra Nevada will be the longest sustained mission for a drone in the state.
Authorities have been adamant that the intelligence collected from the drone will only be used to combat the fire.