Willamette National Forest
U.S. Forest Service
Springfield, OR 97477
New Tool in Firefighting Pioneered by Alaska Team
The Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team (AIIMT) is pioneering use of a new reconnaissance tool for wildfire: the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), more commonly referred to as a ‘drone.’
The UAS is capable of detecting size, location and intensity of fires when conditions are too dangerous or smoky to send in ground teams or helicopters. AIIMT is the first team in the nation to travel to a wildfire incident with a UAS division (including equipment and personnel) as an integral part of the firefighting team.
So what’s the difference between privately owned drones and this one? Communication and safety. If privately owned aircraft or drones are flying near a wildfire, fire managers have to cancel fire surveillance flights for safety reasons. That’s why it’s not legal for private aircraft (including drones) to fly over wildfires.
“The UAS is part of our team,” said Air Support Group Supervisor Jason Brooks, who is also qualified to operate the craft. “Our drone flights are scheduled, approved and conducted with the same amount of communication and regulation as our other air resources - helicopters and fixed wing aircraft used on fires.”
The system requires an FAA certificated and Department of Interior authorized operator (known as the “remote pilot”), an observer, and a licensed drone with a high quality camera. The craft has an operational range of ½ mile from the launch site, and is flown up to an altitude of 400 feet. It can be outfitted with either a video camera, or an infrared camera capable of identifying heat and flames when smoke doesn’t allow a clear view. Field operations staff are able to view video from the UAS live from the fireline, allowing immediate use of the information being gathered. It also feeds GPS location data back to base to help clarify fire perimeters. The team’s current drone offers about :12 minutes of operational flight time, but new models in development will significantly increase flight duration and distance capabilities.
Economics is part of the reason the Alaska Team endorses UAS. The drone, camera and gimbal (which stabilizes the image) cost about $6,500. After initial purchase, the craft is owned by the team and no additional costs are incurred. This contrasts with contracted helicopter costs of more than $1,500 per flight hour.
The team has flown more than 100 missions in Alaska, and used the UAS on wildfires in California and Montana this year. Since September 10, the team has logged 81 flights for a total of 13.45 hours of flight time on the Horse Creek Complex and Rebel Fire in Oregon.
“Drones can’t replace helicopters, but they are a valuable and affordable tool that can help fire managers gather information efficiently while keeping firefighters safe,” said AIIMT Incident Commander Tom Kurth. “They’re another great tool in our tool box.”