NASA Predator Scans California Burn Areas

The unmanned aerial drone surveyed wildfire damage using visible, infrared and thermal filters.

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LOS ANGELES—An unmanned NASA Predator aircraft equipped with an infrared imaging sensor has flown over large areas burned by two California wildfires to help the Forest Service assess damage, the administration said Tuesday.

Operating from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, the Predator flew over the 250 square miles burned by this summer's Station Fire in Angeles National Forest and the 57-square-mile area scorched by the 2008 Piute Fire in Sequoia National Forest and other federal land in Kern County.

The aircraft carried a scanner with filters to detect light in visible, infrared and thermal wavelengths.

The images were then sent by satellite to NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., and were superimposed over Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth maps before being sent to the Forest Service.

The images depict different levels of fire damage in varying hues of color.

The Predator, which NASA has given the Native American name Ikhana (ee-KAH'-nah), is part of a fleet of unmanned aircraft types developed for military purposes that Dryden is using for earth science research.

NASA said that the two burn areas were scanned Thursday in a seven-hour flight to the Piute burn area northwest of Edwards and then southeast to the Station Fire area.

The latter portion of the flight by the remotely piloted aircraft occurred in the national airspace system and required close coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA said.

The Station Fire was ignited by arson on Aug. 26 in the San Gabriel Mountains and grew into the largest fire in Los Angeles County history. Thousands of homes in suburbs on the perimeter were threatened and 89 were destroyed. Two firefighters died when their vehicle plunged off a road when flames overran a fire camp.

Authorities have warned that there could be more damage. Winter rains on the vast areas of steep slopes left bare by the fire could unleash huge flows of debris-laden water into foothill communities.

The Piute Fire in June and July 2008 destroyed or damaged six homes and 45 outbuildings.

The NASA Predator was also used to send fire commanders information on blazes burning throughout the West in 2007-08. It was ready for similar missions this fall but was not needed, said Beth Hagenauer, a Dryden spokeswoman.

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