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Drone to the Rescue in Flagstaff Forest Fire

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by Patrick J. Paul

The U.S. Forest Service deployed a drone for its maiden mission to manage a forest fire in Flagstaff, Arizona earlier this week. The lightning-caused Maroon Fire has been burning for several weeks in the Coconino National Forest in an area used for bomb and ordnance testing during World War II. Forest Service officials, concerned about high-voltage power lines and the possibility of firefighters encountering unexploded bombs, requested unmanned aerial support in its suppression efforts.

The Forest Service deployed the drone to drop ignitable devices that would create defensive fires to manage the primary fire, now deemed to be 50% contained after having burned almost 9,000 acres. The Forest Service drone can be utilized to map landscapes with its infrared camera—allowing real-time data to flow to firefighters with respect to size and location of fires—thus allowing for the more strategic deployment of assets to manage those burns while providing greater safety and security for those on the frontline.

Unlike helicopters or other aircraft which are still vital to fighting forest fires, drones have the ability to fly lower and slower to manage fire suppression more strategically—particularly when impacted areas are surrounded by forestry, buildings, or high-voltage lines—thereby reducing the risk both in the air and on the ground.

Although at present drones may not be operated over or near wildlife or prescribed fires given the hazards to other aerial operations, waivers may be obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration which help provide all aircraft the necessary information to avoid incident while successfully pursuing firefighting efforts.

On the heels of one of the wettest winters in Flagstaff history, more fires seem likely this summer. Drone deployment as a means of suppression is a sound use of modern technology. Only six years removed from the devastating Yarnell fire that took the lives of nineteen firefighters in Prescott, the strategic deployment of drones in firefighting efforts is one way to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.