Air Force Space Hacks Red Tape to Support Firefighters’ Efforts Against California Wildfires

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  • SMC Public Affairs

In recent months, California wildfires have been some of the fastest moving and most destructive fires in recorded history. November 2018 alone has been historic in the state as it saw two of the fastest fires in recorded history. The Camp Fire in Northern California claimed 85 lives and destroyed more than 14,000 homes and 150,000 acres of land.  Near Los Angeles, the Woolsey Fire was responsible for two additional deaths, destroyed over 1,500 homes, and consumed more than 96,000 acres of land.  At one point, driven by fierce winds, the Woolsey Fire was 14 miles wide and moved an astonishing 9 miles per hour, challenging the ability of firefighters to issue evacuation warnings and move resources into position to contain the blaze.  The U.S. Forest Service’s need for timely information on the current state of the fires was evident. After a request for assistance from the U.S. Forestry Service, the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, under the leadership of the Remote Sensing Systems Directorate (SMC/RS) rushed to help by ‘hacking’ DOD acquisition regulations to get data services on contract in less than a day. 


“To assist the U.S. Forest Service, SMC conducted a rapid assessment of fused remote sensing data derived from multiple sources that were available in the RS data exploitation lab, called the Tools, Applications, and Processing Lab,” said SMC’s Col. Dennis Bythewood, SMC/RS Director. “Fusing multiple low latency data streams offered tremendous advantages over current methods such as aircraft surveillance or human spotters.  The firefighters on the front line need the most up to date information available as they battle these fast moving fires that continue to put people and property at risk.”


The SMC team worked with Northrop Grumman Corporation to rapidly develop a process to analyze multiple remote sensing data streams, fuse the data, and pass timely results directly to the Forest Service’s regional firefighting operations center.  SMC/RS’s fused data method demonstrated the ability to provide combined data hourly, more than 10 times faster than the 12 to 18 hours it currently takes to analyze information from standard airborne assets. This increase in speed was aided by a 24/7 volunteer crew from Northrop Grumman that passed data to the regional firefighting operations center allowing the Forest Service to quickly identify four potentially dangerous flare-ups, new fires developing outside known fire boundaries, and to react decisively.


Rapidly fusing multiple remote sensing data streams was possible because SMC/RS experts worked with Headquarters Air Force Space Command to clarify data security and classification concerns while SMC Contracting Officers used available contingency contracting methods to get this capability on contract in under eight hours.  In fact, it took less than 10 hours from the Forest Service’s initial request to pass the first data from Northrop Grumman’s Azusa, Calif. facility to the Forest Service’s regional operations center.  The team continued this data support for a critical two-week period in support of both California fires.


“Hacking the DOD acquisitions regulations enabled the Air Force to streamline a process that historically takes months and instead provided critical wildfire support in a matter of hours,” said Bythewood. “Working with the U.S. Forest Service to demonstrate this capability highlighted the value of this collaboration.  Our goal going forward is to ensure this support is available on a timely and ongoing basis in support of U.S. Forest Service firefighting operations.”