Oregon tops nation in wildfire drone missions

SALEM, Ore. – In 2010, the U.S. Department of the Interior began regularly using drones to help fight wildfires. Seven years later, Oregon topped the nation in the use of drones for wildfire and natural resource missions.

When the DOI’s drone program first started, they used decommissioned military hand-me-downs used on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. The noisy, cumbersome unmanned aerial systems took reams of paperwork for them to even qualify for flight, but they proved their merit. The government saw how effective these new tools can be.

Image: Bureau of Land Management – Oregon

The small number of pilots steadily grew as the department trained new people and got their hands on more advanced technology. Soon, pilots were able to spend minutes doing tasks that otherwise would have taken hours. “If I’m driving down the road and I see an eagle’s nest in that tree, and I happen to be the person responsible for inventorying that stuff, I should be able to stop my truck, check what airspace I’m in, make a phone call to let someone know that I’m flying, go fly it, and get on with my day,” explained Guilbert Dustin, manager of the BLM’s growing drone operation.

This past fire season, drones were deployed 707 times on 71 individual fires. 340 of those missions were in Oregon, the most of any state.  The total flights represented an 82 percent increase from the prior year.

A drone flight during 2017’s Umpqua North Complex was credited with saving $50 million in property and infrastructure.

“Interior is committed to preventing the spread of catastrophic wildfires through smarter and more aggressive practices and tactics,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. “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. After seeing the capabilities, I know it will continue to make a big difference in firefighting. The UAS program is a perfect example of leveraging technology to fight fires in safer and more efficient ways to ensure we are protecting the men and women on the fire line, members of the public, and local communities. Coupled with more aggressive fuels management, this technology will help prevent and control catastrophic wildfires.”

Drones are now used to gain an advantage on wildfires in a way that is much cheaper and vastly safer compared to manned aerial missions. Plus, they’re able to fly in conditions that are otherwise impossible for planes and helicopters.

“We’ve helped DOI programs accomplish their goals for an average of one-tenth of the cost in one-seventh the time of traditional means,” said Jeff Rupert, Acting Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. “Adding drone support to fire suppression efforts could dramatically reduce the size and cost of wildfires, potentially saving millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of acres with triple the hours of critical aviation support.”

Drone use continues to advance. This spring, the DOI plans pilot programs studying their use for fire prescribed fires and suppressing operations.

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