Drones can do just about anything, from delivering coffee to shooting Hollywood movies. And over the latest fire season (and over the past few years, too), they proved to be a critical tool in wildland firefighting.
More than 6 million acres of forest burned this year, across the nation. California had an especially brutal year, as nearly 2.5 million acres have burned in the state through early November. That’s nearly double the amount that burned on average over the past five years, according to CalFire, the state’s fire agency. Among the largest burns were the Dixie fire, which began in July and lasted more than three months.
The fire season has been brutal for a number of factors, including lack of rain. Some experts suggest that strict rules around prescribed burns may also be a hindrance. But there is a relatively new factor coming into play that could help make subsequent fire seasons less destructive: drones.
Flying drones equipped with infrared cameras and ignition payloads are being used for wildland firefighting these days. And in a recent episode of the Federal Aviation Adminstration’s “The Air Up There” podcast, ‘FAA drone guy’ Kevin Morris and co-host Talisa White discussed how drones are critical in fighting wildfires, along with Mike Sheldon, an air traffic security expert for FAA, Dirk Giles, the Forest Service’s drone program manager, and Pete York, a CAL FIRE captain.
For the National Forest Service, drone use began back in 2015.
“Since then, we’ve seen nothing but an incredible growth rate,” Giles said in the pocast. “If you really looked at, like, that 2015 timeframe, just the platform that we were using versus what we’re using now — increasing endurance, better sensors that are integrated into the airspace — it’s an incredible tool to heighten the situational awareness of on-the-ground decision makers right now.”
Giles said his unit comprises 65 drone operators.
Lighting fires with drones to contain fires
The Forest Service is also experimenting with various payloads such as aerial ignition modules, which can be used to help firefighters control the intensity of the burn.
“If we can back it down nice and neat, it’s nice and easy.” Giles said. “It’s a surface fire instead of what we call a crown fire where — if you got fire at the base of a hill — it’s going to run up and just kill everything in its path.”
Managing fires this way also provides a longer-term benefit than just fighting the fire.
“It’s easier on the ecosystem, it’s easier in the landscape,” Giles said. “And then post-fire, we’re not dealing with erosion issues or emergency stabilization of soils near critical watersheds.”
Firefighters have routinely done aerial ignitions from helicopters for decades. But a human life flying directly near a fire poses its own risks.
Besides taking a human out of harm’s way, managing fires this way has other benefits versus using helicopters.
“(We can be) a little bit more surgical and strategic of where we’re adding fire, how much fire we’re putting on the ground,” he said. “We’re also opening up opportunities to not just fly during day, but we can now fly at night or in the middle of an inversion due to the infrared cameras that were utilized, so it’s really opened up our operational capability from just during the day to around the clock.”
Giles added that there have been four helicopter accidents within that prescribed fire mission profile with 16 employee fatalities over a course of eight years.
Gathering wildland firefighting insights via drones
Drones are also used to gather real-time, aerial data about fires. Infrared aerial imagery is particularly relevant, as it allows firefighters to see through smoke.
Bbeing able to launch a UAS from the fire line with the decision-makers, the person responsible for that piece of line, and be able to give them direct information and show them exactly what the fire is showing, and the fire’s behavior — and do this both day and night, in heavy smoke conditions when the manned aviation assets aren’t available to fly — it’s vital, it gives them really good insight into what’s going on before they engage in areas they might not have better intel for,” CAL FIRE captain York said.
More about flying drones over fires
To accompany its podcast, the FAA published an extensive guide on its Medium website, which I recommend checking out if you’re interested in learning more.
As for you trying to get into drones for wildland firefighting, leave it to the professionals. For most people — flying a drone near or over an active wildfire is illegal. Use of drones for wildland firefighting or near fires is only legal with FAA approval.
In fact, even Giles’ Forest Service UAS team still requires individual approval from the FAA. This year, alone, the group has requested more than 80 emergency authorizations from the FAA through the Special Government Interest process, according to the FAA.
About the Air Up There podcast
The FAA’s episode on wildland firefighting was Season 3, Episode 6 of the FAA’s ongoing “The Air Up There” podcast series. Earlier drone episodes this year have included a June 2021 episode all about drone entrepreneurship. And in a May 2021 episode, the FAA’s Dominique Gebru covers everything you need to become a certified drone pilot, as well as the dos and don’ts of drone flying from FAA drone expert, Danielle Corbett.
Looking for even more drone-related podcasts in your ears? Check out my guide to the best drone podcasts.