Drone use for fighting wildfires increasing as safer ignition option in some situations

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Division Fire Prevention and Control's Ben Miller prepares to launch a drone over the Hanging Lake Trailhead on Sunday.
Peter Baumann/Glenwood Springs Post Independent

The use of drones by federal fire management teams to fight wildland fires has increased in recent years, including in some of the hard-to-reach sections of the Grizzly Creek Fire these past two weeks.

Much of the work after a fire has established itself in a certain area involves “boots on the ground,” explained Brian Scott, public information officer for the outgoing Great Basin Type 1 Incident Management Team (IMT), before operations were turned over on Tuesday to the Alaska Type 1 IMT.

Ground teams build the fire lines along the fire’s edge and mop up hot spots. They also set intentional ground fires for burnout operations in areas to make the containment line stronger.

But sometimes they need a little help, especially in steeper terrain and where the vegetation is thicker, Scott said.

“We can use helicopters, which drop spherical devices into an area to ignite fuels,” he said. “But sometimes the helicopters can’t fly into an area if it’s too smokey, or it’s too tight of a space.”

That’s when drones can be useful, Scott said.

Jeremy Seng was the air operations branch director with the Great Basin team for the past two weeks.

Last week, when the fire management team was looking to conduct a burnout operation in the No Name Creek area to prevent the Grizzly Creek Fire from spreading west toward Glenwood Springs, drones were considered.

“We brought the UAS (unmanned aerial systems) team in here, but were able to hold that line with hand ignitions,” Seng said. “So, we ended up using them in the Bair Ranch area.”

There, the goal was to conduct firing operations in strategic locations to protect some of the ranch structures higher up in the valley where the canyon tightens.

“Using the aerial ignition devices, we were able to protect those structures and keep the fire controlled,” Seng said.

The other unique thing about drone use is that they have infrared sensors, allowing them to fly at night and in smokey conditions when visibility is low.

“A helicopter needs a much more controlled environment, and it can be dangerous to do those types of operations from the ground,” he said.

Scott referred to some wildfires in Alaska that he was involved with, where ground teams ran into the danger of burned-out tree pits that still had coals burning underground.

“It left an ash covering, but a firefighter couldn’t tell if there was a pit of burning embers that he was stepping into,” Scott said.

From the air, Seng added, one of the more dangerous activities is flying a helicopter slow and low, especially with someone hanging out the door dropping the ignition devices where they need to land.

“We have had accidents and even some fatalities,” Seng said. “With UAS, it is an asset and a tool that has helped us to reduce that risk.”

Drones do have their limitations, though, he said, including smaller load capacity, shorter flight times and weather impacts, especially if there are high winds.

Seng works as the aviation manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Nevada.

“It’s just another piece in the puzzle, but we do have to make sure we have proper communication and planning,” he said of drones, which also are used extensively to fly over fire areas at night, using the infrared cameras to check for hot spots.