USA – Firefighters in northern Arizona’s Coconino National Forest faced an unusual hazard while containing a wildfire this week: a 565-acre World War II-era military training area filled with unexploded artillery.
Their solution? Send in a drone to drop ping-pong-ball-sized mini bombs and set smaller fires to help control larger blazes.
Besides the unexploded artillery, power lines also crossed where the 13-square-mile Maroon Fire was burning.
“My main concern was we don’t want people walking through those areas,” Justin Jager, interagency aviation officer for Coconino and two other national forests in the area, told weather.com. “So our other options to safely ignite those areas would be a helicopter or a drone.”
Similar operations are often conducted by helicopters, but this was the first time the Forest Service had deployed a drone to set the smaller fires, which can help contain and control a wildfire by burning vegetation and other natural fuel in its path.
Officials also opted for the drone because they worried that it would be too dangerous for a helicopter to make an emergency landing in the WWII training site. Jager said issues with helicopters are rare, but it wasn’t worth the risk.
“If something happens with the drone, not a huge deal,” he said. “No one’s going to get hurt if the drone goes down for some reason.”
The Forest Service had already been training with the drone, an M600, and pilots had completed a week-long class. They had also taken the drone to a few fires last year but had not used it.
“This just really presented to me the perfect scenario to use an unmanned system,” Jager said. “Everything just started to come together.”
The agency also uses smaller quad copters for fire surveillance. Jager referred to the drone program as “crawl, walk, run.” Training starts slowly, then progresses and then the drones can be deployed on a moment’s notice.
The M600 is much bigger than most hobbyist drones, and was recently used to identify new radiation hotspots at Chernobyl.
The Maroon Fire was started by a lightning strike, but was allowed to continue as a controlled burn to help protect against future, larger blazes.
Coconino National Forest spokesman George Jozens said that’s common practice in the area, where lightning strikes are frequent.
“We like to let the natural fire burn and help us with the restoration,” Jozens said.
In this case, the fire might help make it easier to remove unexploded artillery on the 565-acre former military training site, an operation planned for next year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Maroon Fire was largely burned out by Wednesday morning, but the drone’s mission isn’t over. Jager said the crew was moving on to help with another fire nearby.