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Boeing's Drone Subsidiary Flies Missions Over Wildfire Bearing Down On Its Home

One of Boeing Defense subsidiary Insitu's 45-pound high-tech unmanned aircraft joined the fight against the Eagle Creek fire this weekend.

Earlier last week, the wildfire burned to the edge of Cascade Locks, advanced toward Hood River and launched embers across the Columbia River west of Stevenson. All of those towns are places where employees at Insitu—the biggest private employer in the Columbia River Gorge—among others live.

Insitu launched one of its ScanEagle drones just a stone's throw from the factory where it was made in Bingen, Washington.

Senior manager for commercial aviation Charlton Evans said the company offered its eye-in-the-sky services when it became clear the fire posed a major threat to their Columbia Gorge community.

"It is hitting home in an extremely real way," Evans said. "The fact that we're here and we can literally launch and recover from our back yard to support it is just an amazing opportunity. We're happy to be able to help even though it’s a tragedy in our back yard." 

The first of what may be many ScanEagle overflights equipped with infrared cameras took place on Saturday night. A second overflight launched on Sunday evening lasted eight hours and produced a detailed infrared survey of the entire fire line.

Insitu spokesperson Jill Vacek said the imagery beamed down "enabled fire officials to pinpoint the fire's perimeter, identify areas of intense heat and assess infrastructure affected by the event."

For several years now, Insitu has been trying to broaden its mostly military customer base. Another team of its drone operators with several ScanEagles is standing by in the U.S. Southeast to perform post-Hurricane Irma damage assessment.

This year, Insitu teamed up with a digital mapping startup based in Bend, Oregon and Dunsmuir, California called FireWhat to offer a real-time, long duration aerial fire mapping capability to managers of big wildfires. ?

Evans said there were "some friction points" in getting a contract in place and all the necessary flight approvals from an alphabet soup of federal and state agencies involved in the Eagle Creek fire command. That along with incoming rain delayed the initial ScanEagle launch from Thursday until Saturday. ?

The incident commanders previously called on and continue to use a small manned aircraft from a different vendor to do aerial mapping of the gorge fire's spread and to identify hot spots. ?

As of Monday morning, the Eagle Creek wildfire had scorched 33,382 acres and was 7 percent contained. Favorable weather over the weekend aided the firefighting effort and led to minimal expansion of the fire perimeter.

Teenagers playing with fireworks are believed to have sparked the fire on September 2. ?

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.