ARLINGTON, Va. – The National Guard’s FireGuard program has helped Guard members in California and Colorado detect and respond to wildfires – saving lives and property since the pilot program began in 2019.
FireGuard uses military satellites with the National Interagency Fire Center, U.S. Forest Service and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s Firefly capability to detect wildfires, notify authorities, and create products to disseminate to firefighting networks nationwide.
FireGuard uses the same algorithm as Firefly, though it’s filtered more and “sanitized” into unclassified products, said Army Maj. Jan Bender, the commander of the California National Guard’s FireGuard team.
“It complements and helps complete the picture on the ground for wildland firefighting partners,” said Bender. “We are one of the first incident awareness and assessment tools that offers an overhead visualization of initial detections on wildfires and rolling assessments. There are a number of tools that come into play as a fire becomes a larger incident, but many times [firefighters] are not able to leverage [those tools] until the incident is a significant size.”
He said that’s where FireGuard becomes a game changer.
“In our program,” he said, “we excel at initial detections on wildfires in remote locations and [at] odd hours.”
The FireGuard program includes two teams of Air Force and Army National Guard intelligence analysts, one in California and in Colorado, who use the Firefly algorithm from the NGA to help interpret data from multiple sources and sensors, including imagery from satellites and drones. These products produced by FireGuard help generate overhead maps with polygons laid on top that depict fire-affected areas. They provide the firefighting community updates to those products as often as every 15 minutes, said Bender.
In 2021, wildfires destroyed nearly 3,000 square miles in California, said Phillip SeLegue, deputy chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. FireGuard tools improved the ability of the nearly 15,000 firefighters on the ground to do their job by enabling them to detect the spread of these fires better.
“One of the most critical components in saving lives and property during rapidly escalating fires is being able to make decisions based upon accurate and reliable situational awareness,” said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
High winds prevented manned overflight during the 2021 Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colorado, that burned more than 6,000 acres. The FireGuard team provided the only products available to partners during the initial eight hours of the incident, facilitating the evacuation of about 35,000 people.
Morgan said that without the information provided by Task Force FireGuard, situational awareness at all levels would have been significantly degraded.
“Over the last two years, the FireGuard program has generated more than 47,000 geospatial products on more than 3,500 fires across the United States,” said Peter Vidmar, intelligence unit chief of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
Vidmar touts FireGuard as a program designed for rapidly changing weather patterns.
“This speaks both to the persistent nature of FireGuard support and the scale of the fire problem across the country,“ he said. “With more extreme weather conditions, the increase in wildland urban interface exposure, and the concept of a fire year instead of a fire season, the early clarity and situational awareness that FireGuard provides helps fill a capability gap.”
Guard members have the necessary security clearances and training in domestic operations to support the FireGuard mission, said Army Col. William DiProfio, chief of the joint staff for the Colorado National Guard.
“FireGuard has become an integral part of our domestic operations portfolio,” he said. “Our Task Force is providing early detection of wildfires on a national level, something that hasn’t existed until now.”