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Drones soar above Camp Creek fire, assisting crews with mapping and containment

Unlike helicopters, drones can safely fly through smoke, at night and at low elevations to guide fire crews and even drop charges to ignite containment burns.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Firefighters battling the Camp Creek Fire in the Bull Run watershed east of Portland got an assist this weekend when they began deploying a drone that can keep an eye on fire crews, map the terrain using infrared sensors and even potentially start prescribed fires on its own.

It might seem paradoxical, but firefighters sometimes use fire to fight wildfires, setting off smaller prescribed burns to help with containment on larger wildfires by depriving them of fuel. The small fires can be set off from the air by dropping small spherical ignition devices containing potassium permanganate.

"They come down through the machine. There is a little syringe that injects it with glycol, essentially antifreeze, and then about 15 to 20 seconds later, after it's dropped out of the aircraft, it lights on the ground," explained Jeremy Seng, an air operations branch director for the Bureau of Land Management.

The "aerial ignition" technique has been around for decades, but it used to always require helicopters. It's only within the past five years that drone technology has reached a point where the spheres can be carried and dropped by uncrewed aircraft, without putting air crews at risk.

"I think for 20 years of walking the line and dropping fire by hand, it sure is making it a little bit safe for all of us," Seng said.

Credit: U.S. Forest Service
A metal box holds plastic spheres containing potassium permanganate and a canister of glycol that will be injected into them to create ignition.

Unlike helicopters, drones can fly through smoke and at night, and they can safely operate at lower elevations, providing better visibility and allowing for more precise ignition sphere deployment.

"We can see exactly where the balls are dropping, and really support the guys on the ground," Seng said.

He said the drones are especially helpful in steep and rugged terrain that can be dangerous for hand crews on the ground.

"In the past, we would have folks in the Hotshots on the ground running around lighting with torches, and now we have essentially eyes from the sky — we can see through the smoke," he said. "We can see the people's body heat. We can see the aerial ignition line as it kind of bumps up the handline."

The drone system and its crew arrived at the Camp Creek Fire on Saturday, according to a news release from the U.S. Forest Service. Aerial ignition hasn't been used at the Camp Creek Fire yet, because the surrounding ground has to be dry from any recent rain, but drone-deployed ignition has been used in other states around the country.

A community meeting about the Camp Creek Fire is scheduled for Sept. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Mount Hood Lions Club in Welches.

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