California state fire marshal praises USNORTHCOM response to wildfires

By Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – In a presentation Tuesday in Colorado Springs, Colo., California's state fire marshal described the response to the recent Southern California wildfires as unequalled in her experience and credited U.S. Northern Command with being the "enabler" of the firefighting operation.

Chief Kate Dargan, who has been with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection more than 30 years, spoke to military and government participants of the Defense Support of Civil Authorities Executive Seminar.

"I've been on a few disasters, and I've never seen a combined state and federal response like we saw this go-round," she said.

USNORTHCOM was instrumental in the speediness and smooth coordination of last month's wildfire response, she added.

"[The command] never gave a bureaucratic answer," Dargan said. "No matter what we asked for, they figured out how to make it happen. They never said no. I know we challenged the system, and it responded ably."

When it came to requesting aircraft to gather aerial images of the wildfires, Dargan said, "We literally got on the phone with NORTHCOM and said, 'Here's what we need. Here's what we'd like to do with it.' And they made it happen."

USNORTHCOM coordinated the use of three military aircraft to gather still images and infrared and full-motion video that fire ground commanders used to plan firefighting operations. It was a "lightning fast" system, Dargan said. In some cases, California officials called directly to the aircraft crews and told them exactly what areas to map and what imagery to send to planners on the ground.

"There were minutes to hours, at most, between the request for information and the tasking processing," Dargan said. "And that made it work, because [the fire ground commanders] were getting the information they needed in the time scale that they needed it. We delivered a lot of information that had never been delivered to a fire line before.

"The ability to provide that kind of real-time operations information [on a large scale] helped incident commanders tremendously."

Firefighters can also use the imagery as a learning tool, Dargan said, by analyzing it to learn more about how fires move and spread.

Not only firefighters benefit from the aerial imagery. Now that the wildfire crisis is over, municipal governments in California are correlating the fire imagery with local economic information and census information to determine what damage has been done and what level of economic support they need.

USNORTHCOM also hosted an emergency database warehouse for the state of California, where all the gathered imagery data was stored and easily accessible to participants in the firefighting operation. It was an asset that took a week for a civilian contractor to put together, but that USNORTHCOM had ready "from day one," Dargan said.

California and USNORTHCOM developed a useful relationship during the wildfire response, Dargan said.

"What we've discovered between NORTHCOM and California is that we're complimentary organizations," she said. "We're both sophisticated responders, and we can partner in a way that will set models for the rest of the country."

USNORTHCOM is the joint combatant command formed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to provide homeland defense and defense support of civil authorities. The command is responsible for the operational control of all active-duty military responses to a disaster when requested by the state and ordered by the president and the secretary of defense.