State firefighting authorities are using an MQ-1 Predator, flown by the California National Guard, to monitor the 301-square-mile Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park and nearby national forest.

The remote-control aircraft is a product of Poway-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

Pilots from the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside are flying the aircraft.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave the approval to use the Predator, according to a Pentagon statement. The Defense Department said the aircraft flew from the Southern California Logistics Airport at Victorville to the fire scene in the Sierra Nevada. The aircraft can stay aloft for 22 hours.

A Pentagon statement said authorities will use the aircraft to monitor the fire’s movement and identify where the fire is under control. The aircraft also will identify safe routes of retreat for firefighters.

Lt. Col. Thomas Keegan of the California National Guard said images gathered by the Predator will be used only to support firefighting.

The aircraft’s pilots will remain in contact with Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers and fly over unpopulated areas whenever possible, Keegan said. The flight path generally will be limited to 30 nautical miles of the Rim Fire. Whenever the Predator flies outside the restricted airspace for the fire, a manned plane will escort it.

— SDBJ Staff Report