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FOREST INK: Drones can be useful in fighting wildfires

Drone technology can be used to find wildfire hot spots and some search and rescue work
Jim Hilton pens a column on forestry each week for the Williams Lake Tribune. (File photo)

I travelled out to the West Branch last week to help with the protection being set up on the recreation homes on Horn and Sapeye lakes being threatened by the Twist Lake and Hell Raving Creek forest fires.

Thanks to the local fire caches and volunteers some of the cabins had sprinklers already set up. By the time I got there a structural protection unit (SPU) had set up sprinklers on all five properties on Sapeye Lake.

Each cabin had at least two sprinklers on each roof and additional units on the ground to cover other out buildings with heavy plastic sheets around portions of the cabins to prevent sparks from blowing underneath. Propane tanks and any flammable objects had been moved away from the main structures.

While I was there a water pump was started and the system tested to see how water was being dispersed around the critical structures. I stayed for three days cleaning up around the cabin and witnessed the usual wind pattern: a slight breeze coming from the north for a couple of hours with much stronger wind blowing from the south starting around 10:00 in the morning and often blowing until the early afternoon. Each night there was very little wind until early the next morning as described above.

Firefighters were facing the worst case scenario, two fires on steep heavily timbered areas reasonably close to water but with persistent winds during the day which often lead to smoke which restricted the use of helicopter bucketing and use of air tankers.

When I returned home I started some research about what was being done to take advantage of the cooler calmer nights. Unfortunately, most of the stories were about the danger of drones used by irresponsible people which were interfering with firefighting efforts but fortunately there were some promising stories.

Drones, also called Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV), were usually larger and required to be registered and in most cases required a lot of training before the users were able to use them around other aircraft.

The majority of uses around wildfires was for mapping and sensing of hot spots to aid ground crews to deal with potential fire repeats.

As reported in CIRA news, one of the most interesting stories was about a company called Hummingbird Drones which was started by people who had been using helicopters to detect the hot spots.

They described this work as being fairly inefficient and really, really dangerous because in order to find those hot spots, the helicopter has to fly at a hazardous altitude known as the “dead man zone” as well as taking a machine away from fighting fires.

The founders’ unique education and job experience led to the development of Hummingbird Drones, a lifesaving business that uses drone technology to find wildfire hot spots as well as some search and rescue work.

Hummingbird Drones now has six employees and uses five unmanned vehicles to collect data formerly acquired by humans. As with many other stories about UAVs most of the work is done at night which doesn’t interfere with other aircraft. They have recently done some work in the Cariboo Chilcotin.

There are also some interesting tests being done on using UAVs to deliver water and retardant to the very early stages of wildfires while they are still relatively small.

The critical use of this system is to get on site quickly so the fire could be quickly mapped and start applying water precisely using thermal sensors which could be done continuously day and night regardless of smoke levels.

The theory is to use many drones because of the much more limited payload but keep them working much longer than the helicopters.

In a future article we will look at some of the options being considered.

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