Drones gather vital information, help crews handle Garner Complex

MERLIN, Ore.– The future of fighting wildfires may be closer than you think.

As thousands of personnel work the fire lines along the Garner Complex in Josephine County, air support is vital in getting to hard to reach places within the zones. However, thick smoke billowing from the largest fires has created visibility issues for most aircraft, save one exception. Drones.

But these aren’t the typical household drones found at the local Best Buy. These are high-tech drones, developed for use by the military and are now being seen in commercial circles for a variety of uses including wildfire reconnaissance.

“It’s so new to us but obviously I can see it’s a huge benefit,” said John Pellissier, an operations sections chief for Oregon Department of Forestry.

Pellissier says the he’s been on more fires than he can count. Typically, when incident commanders need information about current fires or new hot spots, they relied on personnel hiking through the terrain.

“You have crews walking the country,” he said. “Rough slope, in the dark, very hazardous so to speak conditions.”

Over the last two years though, Pellissier has seen drones used to help provide information on several fires including this one. According to Insitu – the company providing the drone – it’s product has a complete range of data gathering equipment. From full motion video to infrared sensors and cameras, the drone can fly through smoke and at night, two points where regular manned aircraft’s aren’t as capable.

“We bring them information throughout the nighttime hours that they have not had a chance to receive before,” said Monica Golden, Insitu media coordinator.

As a subsidiary of The Boeing Company, Insitu has used the drone known as a ScanEagle to fight fires the last two years. Last year, the drone was used to help firefighters at  the Eagle Creek Fire near Portland. This year, it’s been a great help for firefighting crews in Josephine County.

“You know, we don’t have a crew on every inch of this fire perimeter,” said Pellissier. “So we’ve got our priorities and that’s able to watch our back and clean up, notify us if there’s something behind us.”

Recently, Insitu signed a call-when-needed contract with the Department of the Interior to provide a variety of services to 49 of the 50 states, excluding Hawaii. Those jobs include fire suppression, search and rescue and emergency management. The Garner Complex Fire is one of the first opportunities the ScanEagle has been able to spread it’s proverbial wings.

But with a contract that covers the whole country, the ScanEagle can only stay in one place for so long though. Insitu says it will continue to help out on the Garner Complex Fire for as long as it can until it’s called off to another pressing need somewhere else.

Hopefully for firefighters’ sake, these drones can be used more often in the future.

“I see it that my job’s gonna be sitting watching that TV and hanging out on my recliner chair,” said Pellissier.

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