USA – Last summer, one of the many fires with which federal and local officials had to contend raged in the Umpqua National Forest in southwest Oregon, close to the California border.
During one flight over the fire in August, a Bureau of Land Management pilot saw something he later said “wasn’t supposed to be there.” A “spot fire” had broken out beyond the edge of the main blaze, likely set off by a windblown ember.
If the second fire, discerned through an infrared camera since smoke limited visibility to just 100 feet, wasn’t addressed quickly, it could threaten yet more property and lives.
But the pilot hadn’t spotted the spot fire from a helicopter or airplane. He was operating a drone.
That spot fire in Oregon was ultimately contained before it became an issue, according to a video produced by the Department of the Interior highlighting a success story, officials say, in the federal government’s effort to modernize fighting forest fires with a fleet of unmanned aircrafts.
The BLM, a division within Interior, later estimated the early detection of the fire by the drone saved $50 million in land and infrastructure value that could have otherwise been lost.
“I think that is a pretty compelling example of how drones work,” Mark Bathrick, director of Interior’s Office of Aviation Services, said in an interview.
Increasingly, this is what the federal government expects its forest firefighting efforts to look like.
Last year, the Western United States experienced one of its worst wildfire season in years, with an area the size of Delaware burning within California alone. Those fires, along with a trio of devastating hurricanes that hit the opposite coast, made 2017 the costliest year on record for natural disasters in U.S. history.
In response, the federal government relied on unmanned aircrafts, which are increasingly cheaper to buy and deploy, more than ever to aid the efforts of firefighters on the ground. Meanwhile in Congress, lawmakers are frozen in a political stalemate over how to fix a system for funding firefighting efforts that both parties agree is broken.
Last year, Interior, which leads interagency efforts on unmanned aircrafts outside the Pentagon, flew 707 drone missions on 71 wildfires.
“I had the opportunity to join our wildfire professionals last year and was able to test some of the technology that is now being used,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. “After seeing the capabilities, I know it will continue to make a big difference in firefighting.”
In total, the department conducted nearly 5,000 flights altogether for various purposes, including drawing maps, surveying wildlife and conducting search-and-rescue missions, according to a report published last month. That volume of flights is a marked increase from 2016, just one year prior, when Interior conducted 750 flights.
Right now, the federal government just uses small drones to surveil fires and aid firefighters on the ground, like BLM did in Oregon – not to actually extinguish them.
But that is a capability the federal government says it is working on. The goal: To deploy retardant-dumping helicopters capable of being flown either manned and unmanned, so firefighting efforts can continue around the clock. At night and in the early morning, darkness and low-lying smoke, respectively, obscure the views of firefighters above, often making missions too dangerous to do.
Another potential use, being tested at the University of Nebraska, is to use drones to start prescribed burns, potentially to control invasive species and prevent more dangerous, uncontrolled fires.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which crafts regulation for drone use, gives Interior more leeway than other government agencies outside the military, allowing the department’s unmanned pilots to fly beyond their line-of-sight in firefighting and search-and-rescue missions.
Interior currently only oversees its own drones. But last month, the department solicited bids for companies to fly drones over forest fires for longer-term data collection.
Right now, Interior is not replacing human pilots with drones, said Bathrick, instead providing “enhanced situational awareness that just didn’t exist in the past.” But he added drones generally allow missions to be done “in one-seventh the time and at about one-tenth the cost.”
The falling cost of drone technology come just as the federal government faces shortfalls in funds for fighting forest fires.
As the law is currently written, the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Agriculture Department that works with Interior to manage fires, must take money from other parts of its budget to pay to put out flames during parched years when firefighting money runs dry.
Because firefighting officials cannot tap traditional relief funds set aside for hurricanes and other disasters, they are stuck in a vicious loop, borrowing money meant for measures for fire prevention, like clearing underbrush.
House Republicans and some Democrats, led by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, have pushed forward legislation easing requirements for time-consuming environmental reviews on tree-thinning projects undertaken to prevent wildfires.
That measure passed the House in November, but some Senate Democrats along with environmental groups are concerned the legislation is a pretext for giving loggers easier access to public forests.