Pros and Cons of Drones in Wildland Fires

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Last year’s California wildland fires accounted for almost $12 billion in fire-related insurance claims, making it the most financially devastating year for wildland fires in the State’s history. Fire departments on the front lines of wildland fires should look towards drones to help track fires and reduce the risk to firefighters on scene.

Wildland fires are notoriously difficult to contain because of how spread-out they can quickly become, rough terrain and dense woods have made helicopters an expensive necessity in tracking wildland fires. Unfortunately, many helicopter pilots run into situations with smoke obscuring their sight making it too dangerous for them to proceed. Drones with thermal imaging capabilities can provide a low-cost solution to this problem by being able to cut through thick smoke while transmitting thermal images of the fire. Using drones instead of helicopters keeps pilots out of danger and lowers the risk of firefighters on scene. Knowledge is power and the more information firefighters have when tracking fires, the more control they have in containing it. Another advantage drones have over helicopters is how cheap they are to replace, not to mention the reduced risk to the pilot. While a drone will never replace a helicopter, they can reduce the use of them which in turn reduces the cost and risk to the helicopter pilots.

One major drawback of deploying drones is that no other aircraft can operate in the area while wildland operations are active. With proper coordination and communication, firefighters can schedule their flights and avoid problems. However, any civilian drone in the area will force firefighters to ground all air support until the drone has left the area. Civilian drone use during wildland fires is one of the greatest concerns for the FAA(Federal Aviation Administration), to combat these situations the FAA has implemented steep penalties of $1,000 to $25,000 for civilians flying during a wildland operation.

Drones equipped with thermal image cameras can provide an invaluable set of eyes that firefighters normally only have access to with a helicopter. Even with civilian drones causing problems for wildland operations, drones are an incredible tool that firefighters should be utilizing. Thankfully the FAA is putting more effective regulations to reduce civilian interference while simultaneously pushing for civilians to become more educated to no-fly zones. Drones are here, and wildland firefighters need every advantage when battling these intense fires.

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