Editorial: Drones offer a new tool to firefighters

Editorial: Drones offer a new tool to firefighters

19 March 2018

Published by http://democratherald.com/

USA – Today is the first day of spring, which can only mean that the first wildfires will be starting up throughout Oregon in a matter of weeks.

An unusually warm and dry winter in Oregon suggests we may be in for another busy year for wildfires, particularly east of the Cascades. The March 1 outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center took note of above-average temperatures in January and much of February and precipitation that was at or below average, two indicators of potential trouble down the road. It remains to be seen to what extent our recent spell of cooler and wetter weather will help.

There is some promising news on the wildfire front, however: Firefighters are excited about how drones — those unmanned aircraft that can offer a wealth of information about fire conditions — can help battle these blazes.

A recent story in The Washington Post about how firefighters increasingly are reliant on drones started with an example from a fire last year in Oregon, in the Umpqua National Forest. A Bureau of Land Management employee was piloting a drone over the fire, close to the California border, when he noticed something amiss: A spot fire, likely ignited by a windblown ember, had broken out beyond the main blaze.

The fire was picked up via infrared camera, since smoke at the time was limiting visibility to 100 feet.

Because of the early warning provided by the drone, firefighters were able to get a jump on the blaze. The BLM estimated that the early detection saved about $50 million in land and infrastructure value that otherwise could have gone up in smoke.

Last year, the Department of the Interior (which includes the BLM) flew 707 drone missions on 71 wildfires. Interior’s increasing use of drones to gather information about wildfires is part of the department’s growing reliance on the vehicles for other uses as well, such as drawing maps or surveying wildlife: In total in 2017, the department flew nearly 5,000 drone flights, up from about 750 the year before.

At present, the drones are used to gather information about fires. While that work is important, research is underway to use drones in other capacities as well; they could, for example, be used to drop retardant on fires, even in the nighttime hours when visibility makes it too risky to send a manned retardant plane.

And the Post reported that research is continuing into the possibility of using drones to start prescribed burns that could control invasive species and to help prevent more dangerous uncontrolled fires.

It’s good to see progress in this area, because there isn’t any progress apparent in Congress on the issue on how best to pay for firefighting costs.

This has been a lingering embarrassment for years in Congress. As matters now stand, the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service (the two agencies mostly responsible for fighting fires on federal lands) must take money from other parts of their budgets when their firefighting budgets run out of money. Worse, the money that often is diverted would have gone to pay for maintenance work on federal lands — work designed in part to prevent wildfires from burning with the increased intensity that fire officials have noticed in recent seasons. This so-called “fire borrowing” fuels a vicious cycle.

Congress has had before it a variety of proposals to stop this practice. One reasonable proposal would treat the nation’s very biggest fires as natural disasters, allowing funding to fight those blazes to come from other sources — and preserving money intended for that essential maintenance work.

How many more seasons of rampaging wildfires will we have to endure before Congress finally acts? We’re not holding our breath: We may need to do that when smoke from another season of wildfires chokes the mid-valley. (mm)

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