California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Begin Using Drones

Urban expansion and climate change have caused California’s wildfire season to consistently increase over the last few years. With virtually no rainfall this past year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire) has had their work cut out for them. One of the many resources CAL Fire uses to contain wildfires are manned planes and helicopters carrying fire redundant chemicals.

Unfortunately, these aircraft have often been unable to do their jobs because of curious drone operators. On November 4, 2019, CAL Fire Information Center representative Scott McLean put out a bulletin addressing some of the ongoing efforts of the department. In ending the statement he reminded the public of the dangers drones can pose in an active fire. “Our planes and helicopters are operating just a couple hundred feet above the ground leaving no room to maneuver if a drone should appear,” he said. “The drone pilots are putting the firefighting aircraft pilots at risk as well as those on the ground whether they be firefighters or the public. When aircraft are grounded by illegal drone flights it denies firefighters the resources they need to help save lives and property. It is illegal for unauthorized drones to be flown within the fire perimeter and in a lot of cases even outside the fire perimeter. If you fly, we can’t and we won’t.”

That doesn’t mean that authorized drones don’t have a place in a firefighter’s arsenal. Beginning with the Chula Vista Police Department, California has been leading the country in how drones can benefit individual law enforcement and emergency service agencies. This also paved the way for CAL Fire to become one of the first statewide emergency agencies to use drones for natural disasters. This past summer, the Fresno County CAL Fire unit began using a drone during active fires to assist firefighters.

One of the most dangerous aspects of fire is its smoke, making it nearly impossible for firefighters to see through to create plans of action. Fresno County CAL Fire purchased a DJI Mavic Pro and trained 3 officers to operate the drone during emergencies. The drone’s lights enable it to be used at night or in low visibility situations, such as smoke. The drone is also equipped with sensors that can show firefighters hot spots that could lead to fire spreads. The drone is even small enough to be sent into a structure to assess a potentially dangerous situation.

As one of the department’s drone pilots, CAL Fire Batallion Chief Dan Urias is thankful for the new drone program. “It gives us another tool in our tool bag to be able to limit exposure to some of the firefighting personnel, it gives us a different vantage, and really just gives us a different perspective on what’s happening with an incident,” he said. More CAL Fire units have also begun drone programs, but there is still a lot that needs to be tweaked to make them as beneficial as possible in fire management and rescue.

A team of researchers from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley began a program to address how drones can be utilized for firefighters. Led by Joey Mercer, the Scalable Traffic Management for Emergency Response Operations (STEReO) is looking to design software to enhance the technology firefighters need. After observing how CAL Fire used drones during live wildfires, Joey recognized that one of the biggest areas of need for drones is in the discussion making stages in dense smoke zones. In such situations, communication between drone operators, manned aircraft, and ground workers is critical. Joey and his team are currently working on a way to ensure that drone kits are portable in fire landscapes and can be used to facilitate lines of communication between all engaged parties. As fires and other natural disasters continue to pose threats to communities, tools like drones can become key in how situations are assessed and overcome.

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