Drone to Fly Over Tepee Springs Fire, Testing New Technologies 

click to enlarge A helicopter hauls supplies to the fire line on the Tepee Springs Fire, now 95,000 acres in size. - INCIWEB
  • InciWeb
  • A helicopter hauls supplies to the fire line on the Tepee Springs Fire, now 95,000 acres in size.
Unmanned aircraft systems—a.k.a. drones—will join the fight against the 95,7000-acre Tepee Springs Fire burning three miles east of Riggins. Starting on Thursday, Sept. 17, a drone will be launched to test and evaluate new technology to help firefighting efforts across the country. 

According to a news release from the Payette National Forest, the drone will gather real-time information on fire growth, burn intensity, fuels and heat concentrations that will help fire managers strategize how to best contain wildfires. It will also provide data that firefighters can use to assess risks of erosion and runoff, as well as wildlife and vegetation impacts in inaccessible areas.

The project is a collaboration between the Office of Aviation Services and the Textron Company—which oversees brands like Bell Helicopter, Cessna and Beechcraft. The Aerosonde aircraft weighs about 75 pounds, can launch itself and land from a portable trailer. It's piloted remotely from a mobile command center. The machine is quieter, uses less fuel and can be flown during periods of low visibility, unlike manned aircrafts.

Textron is providing this demonstration at the Tepee Springs Fire for no cost to the government in order to demonstrate the capability of drones in firefighting.

Earlier this summer, the National Interagency Fire Center asked the public to stop flying drones near wildfires. Firefighters across the west had run-ins with drones that put a halt to fire suppression.
click to enlarge - NIFC started asking the public this summer to keep drones away from wildfires. -  - U.S. FOREST SERVICE
  • U.S. Forest Service
  • NIFC started asking the public this summer to keep drones away from wildfires.
 If a drone is flying over or near a fire, air tankers and heli-attack crews must be grounded until the drone leaves. Because there's no way to communicate with drone pilots, it's impossible to know what the drone will do next.

"When you have to shut down air operations, you're opening [the fire] up to get bigger and threaten lives and property," Jennifer Jones, a public affairs specialist for NIFC, told Boise Weekly in July. "We could even have problems if a pilot is flying and sees a drone and gets distracted. When you're that close to uneven, mountainous terrain, that distraction could be problematic."

- An example of the kind of drone that will fly over the Tepee Springs Fire this week. -  - AEROSONDE
  • Aerosonde
  • An example of the kind of drone that will fly over the Tepee Springs Fire this week.
NIFC also worried about in-air collisions between drones and air tankers or helicopters. It launched a public service announcement campaign asking people to stop using drones to get a better look at the fire themselves, whether for cool aerial footage or photos.

The Federal Aviation Administration Temporary flight restriction over the Tepee Springs Fire was modified to let this drone fly. It won't hinder firefighting operations and will only fly over public lands, not private land or designated wilderness.

The fire is currently 80 percent contained. Fire behavior, according to InciWeb, has remained minimal. Cooler temperatures and the possibility of rain will help firefighters reach full containment.
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