Both Oregon and Washington’s state forestry departments had hoped to try out drones this summer to provide reconnaissance at wildfire scenes. But neither firefighting agency managed to pull it off. Now both plan to try again next year.
State foresters in southern Oregon acquired a remote-controlled helicopter at the beginning of fire season, but discovered they couldn't legally fly it without pilot's licenses. The training and paperwork are now in progress.
Meanwhile, a leader in the Northwest's unmanned aircraft industry has launched a separate project to develop a nighttime wildfire reconnaissance capability. Eric Simpkins of Bend, Oregon, said he's lined up four drone providers willing to donate flight time to demonstrate the new technology for wildfires.
“Fires do change during the night. Winds come up, move the fires a lot,” Simpkins said at an industry conference in Warm Springs, Oregon. “It is very hard for fire managers to know what is going on during hours of darkness and it inhibits their ability to get a quick start the next morning.”
This past July, Washington's Department of Natural Resources got emergency approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to deploy a drone at a wildfire north of Wenatchee. Boeing subsidiary Insitu provided one of its ScanEagle unmanned aircraft to use for free. But the experiment was scrubbed at the last minute.
A state spokesman says they want to try again next summer on a tamer wildfire.
Simpkins described the introduction of drones into wildland firefighting as a “crawl, walk, run” kind of process. He predicts the first test flights could happen over prescribed burns “in very controlled situations” and then the team would eventually work its way up to true wildland fires.