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Instead Of Water, Military Drones Helping Fight Fire With Data

MORENO VALLEY (CBSLA) — Firefighters have been working nonstop to put out multiple wildfires ravaging land and homes from the hills to the beaches of Southern California. High above the flames and smoke, heavy duty materiel is helping them better battle those blazes.

In a partnership between state fire protection agency CAL FIRE and the California Air National Guard, unmanned drones have been assisting firefighters by relaying information that those on the ground could not otherwise get.

The MQ-9 Reapers that were deployed this week have sensors that can see through smoke and feed back live video to the fire command.

"We can show [firefighters] where the fire's moving or if the embers start flying four or five miles away," drone pilot Col. Sean Navin told CBS2 News Friday. "They have literally real-time data, and they can start taking their limited resources and putting them where it counts most."

The pilots were flying the drones above the Thomas Fire in Ventura County Friday, controlling the aircraft from an operating center in Riverside County.

They can fly twice as high as a CBS2 News chopper, and they are not as affected by winds at those altitudes.

Another benefit is that drones can fly around the clock — no breaks needed.

The program is relatively new, and for some of the drone pilots, it's the first time they've flown over an emergency in their own communities.

"It's definitely different, and it definitely makes it more important," former combat pilot Lt. Col. Daniel Stromberg told CBS2. "We're more vested in ensuring the guys on the ground take care of the fires."

Because it's their neighbors on the ground, it's their homes they're trying to save. From what they've been seeing, it looks like they're making progress.

"I'm optimistic," said Lt. Col. Stromberg."It's scary when you hear other fires pop up, but at the same time, I think we're making a difference, and I think we're going to get them under control."

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