How Drones are Helping Wildland Firefighters

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“If you fly, we can’t.”

Many of us in the wildland firefighter community are familiar with these words. As well, many amateaur drone operators are familiar as well. When drones first emerged, it was a temptation of many amateurs to fly above active fires–either to see what was happening or with a misguided desire to help. However, this often caused all official operations to be grounded. As a result, “if you fly, we can’t” has become a frequent phrase–as well as “it’s not worth the view!”

The time between grounding operations due to an unauthorized drone and saving more wildland often is very small. Every minute counts.

However, the tide is beginning to change regarding drones and their role in wildland fires–at least in an official capacity.

Drones Help Fight Fires

Drones aren’t able to distribute water or fire retardants to fires, deliver supplies, or evacuate injured firefighters and civilians. So what can drones do?

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), are equipped with cameras that are unlike normal cameras–and definitely different from the average person’s eyesight. They can be equipped with sensors, such as infrared, to allow the pilot manning the UAS to see through smoke and dark. This allows pilots to better determine heat signatures and create thermal-based imaging, which in turn allows firefighters to identify areas where the fire is active. This can also help firefighters find spot fires.

Spot fires are what happens when embers from the main fire are caught in the wind and pushed until they find new ground, starting a new fire. This is a major threat in the Pacific Northwest, especially during red flag warnings, and managing spot fires can help fight wildfires. Notoriously, spot fires are hard to identify because of pre-existing smoke in the air. With the help of drones, the labor-intensive process of identifying these spot fires has changed: large areas can be scanned quickly, spot fire identified, and firefighters deployed. Communication is key in these situations and drones help reduce the time it takes to identify spot fires–which can make all the difference.

Keeping Firefighters Safe

One additional benefit of the use of drones in fighting wildland fires is safety.

Often during the worst wildland fires, aircraft is grounded in order to keep pilots out of adverse conditions. This is a safety precaution. However, because drones are unmanned, they can be sent into conditions that traditional aircraft can typically not. In heavy smoke conditions, as well as during night, spot fires can be spotted and firefighters deployed quickly, without risking the safety of pilots.

Hotshot crews can also communicate with UAS teams to have them check areas before they move forward. For example, a crew might ask for assistance exploring an area they suspect might be active; they can then view a feed of the area and make the best choices for moving forward. This can help prevent dangerous situations that crews aren’t able to predict.

The Future of Aviation

Since 2015, the landscape of fighting wildland fires has changed dramatically. We have seen worse fire seasons in the last few years–as well as major advancements in technology that can help us combat these changes.

UAS have advanced capabilities that can help firefighters make better decisions because they have all the information available to them. As well, these systems are more cost effective: they take less time to scan an area, communication is sped up, and the time it takes to fight fires can decrease thanks to them.

Drones are the future of aviation in many ways. This means they are the future of fighting wildland fires too.

Preparing For Wildfire Season with NFFC

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The National Fire Fighter Corporation strives to provide customers with the products they need to protect themselves, their communities, and their property from the devastating effects of fire. NFFC is a trusted source for quality, reliable firefighting gear to help effectively extinguish fires, stay protected, and minimize injury. With innovative designs, and high-quality, durable materials, NFFC wildland fire equipment and products help keep the brave men and women fighting fires safe when things get hot.

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