UMPQUA NATIONAL FOREST, Ore. – In early August 2017, lightning storms swept over forests in southern Oregon. U.S. Forest Service managers watched as the storms sparked dozens of fires. “We confirmed 42 fires; we know more will be confirmed today,” they wrote.
The storms were followed by gusty, erratic winds as crews tried to tackle the growing fires. A group of those fires in the Umpqua National Forest was particularly troublesome for firefighters. Those fires would later be labeled the Umpqua North Complex.
Smoke hampers containment efforts
Crews attacked the fires while holdover fires began springing up. They had multiple tools at their disposal, including air attack planes and helicopters. Air support is crucial to modern firefighting efforts, and the fight against the North Umpqua Complex was no different. However, smoke from the fires was rapidly decreasing visibility, making it more difficult to fly.
Near the Toketee Dam, the situation seemed dire. $50 million in infrastructure and property were at stake. Fires were getting close to the dam power plant, houses and a USFS ranger station. To make matters worse, smoke limited visibility to 100 feet, grounding all manned aircraft. If crews lost air support, they could lose ground against the fire.
A new tool joins the fight
Fortunately, crews had a new weapon in their firefighting arsenal: unmanned aircraft systems, commonly known as “drones.” The Department of the Interior (DOI)–charged with conservation and management of federal lands–maintains a fleet of drones. While manned aircraft couldn’t fly that smoky day, specially equipped unmanned DOI drones could.
The plan to save the Toketee power plant included using a small, quad-copter equipped with an infrared camera to feed live video to firefighters. The ability of the drone is unique. It can fly low, slow and for long periods of time while collecting high-resolution imagery. Using the infrared spectrum, the quadcopter could effectively see through the smoke and spot heat from the fires.
The drone flight’s mission was to provide situational awareness while ground crews conducted a burnout operation ahead of the fire in an effort to deprive the flames of fuel between the main fire and the dam area. During the burnout, a spot fire across containment lines was discovered by the drone’s IR camera. The fire directly threatened the area firefighters were working to protect. Crews were able to coordinate and stop that fire before it got out of control. The operation eventually proved successful, saving the Toketee power plant.
After the fire, the Department of the Interior stated, “Given the extreme fire weather conditions, available fuels, and steep topography of the area, it is likely that not discovering the spot fire in a timely manner would have disrupted people’s lives significantly and potentially destroyed $50 million of property and infrastructure.”
The Umpqua North Complex burned over 43,000 acres before containment in October 2017.
The advantages of drones
The DOI said fighting fires with drones have significant advantages, particularly when compared with manned flights. Using their figures, operating a drone costs $50 an hour while using a manned helicopter costs about $1,500 an hour. In addition, they’re easily packable and able to fly close to the ground in remote, rugged locations.
The DOI said the North Umpqua Fire is just one example of how drones can reduce cost and increase the safety of personnel, according to the director of the Office of Aviation Services at the Department of the Interior. In fact, the department uses drones for wildlife monitoring, land surveillance and when natural disasters strike.
“You can send a drone in and find out if someone needs to go in there, if it’s even possible to get in there and, if it is, what’s the best route possible to get in there,” Bathrick told the Federal Times.
In the future, Bathrick sees drones as performing dangerous jobs clearing avalanche areas without endangering park rangers.