Fireball-dropping drones and the new technology helping fight fires

Technology old and new is being pulled into the battle against California's fires.

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The Slater Fire burns in Oregon’s Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, near the border with California, on September 23, 2020. Drones like this one can fly and see in heavy smoke, helping firefighters on the ground know where the fire is growing.

As unprecedented wildfires ravage California and much of the West, firefighters have taken innovative steps to try to keep up with the flames. An array of new and existing technologies has been pulled into the fray—including fireball-dropping drones and repurposed passenger jets—to enhance ground-based, time-tested techniques.

Fighting fires still depends on cutting firebreaks, setting backfires, and spraying water. The best tools are often simple ones: water hoses, bulldozers, brush-clearing axes.

However, in an age where climate change is promoting more and bigger fires that consume millions of acres in a single season, the profession of firefighting must be quicker, safer, and cover greater ground—even as a spreading pandemic makes the work that much harder.

Arrival of the drones

Because of their size and maneuverability, drones can access places that fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters can’t, making them arguably the greatest innovation in firefighting this year.

At least 30 pilots guiding some two dozen drones are fighting wildfires in Oregon, California, Colorado, and elsewhere. That’s twice as many as last year, when the federal Wildfire Management Technology Act was signed into law to allow more drones to be used to fight wildfires.

“We’re getting a significant increase in requests this year. We don’t have the pilots or aircraft to meet the needs now,” says Joe Suarez, a drone specialist with the National Park Service and superintendent of the Arrowhead Hot Shot fire crew in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

In August, Suarez was flying an M-600 drone over the Woodward Fire on the Point Reyes National Seashore. He was using the six-rotor aerial vehicle, equipped with thermal imaging, to map the fire, which covered 5,000 acres then. Human-piloted aircraft could not risk flying into the coastal fog and the smoke.

Simon Weibel, another longtime firefighter who now works for a company called Drone Amplified, joined Suarez that day. He brought along a funnel-shaped attachment for the underside of a drone, a device that can release 450 ping-pong-ball-sized incendiary devices in less than four minutes.

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Firefighters are increasingly using drones to fly into places too dangerous for conventional aircraft.

Each of the one-inch spheres, called Dragon Eggs, contains potassium permanganate, and just before they are released they are given a pin injection of anti-freeze. The reaction between the two chemicals ignites the spheres after they hit the ground. The eggs can set fires ahead of an advancing wildfire in hard-to-reach places, denying it fuel.

“A bonus is you can do nighttime ops and work in smoky conditions, because if a drone crashes, no one dies,” Weibel notes.

At the Point Reyes fire, the drones were “a good safety tool for getting in where it was too thick or too steep for the firefighters,” says Suarez. And the Dragon Eggs they dropped enabled the backfire to cover a strip of land that was 300 to 400 feet wider, which made it a much more effective barrier against the spread of the wildfire.

Big help from above

Above the deadly El Dorado Fire burning east of Los Angeles in September, a retrofitted 747 jumbo jet flying low over the treetops released 18,000 gallons of bright red fire retardant to slow the progress of the fast-moving wildfire. Leading the jet was a highly maneuverable, Vietnam-era OV-10 Bronco plane. Before guiding huge planes with huge loads of fire retardant, these Broncos make sure the jet’s path is clear, that no updrafts, shifting columns of smoke, hidden terrain, or other obstacles could place the massive aircraft and its three-person crew in danger.

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A firefighter stands off of CA Highway 190 in the Sequoia National Forest in September. The road was covered in Phos-Chek, a bright red colored slurry dropped from an air tanker to slow the spread of the blaze. In the background are trees that have been killed by bark beetle and drought.

Another potential danger for firefighting aircraft are unauthorized civilian drones, experts say, since low-flying firefighting aircraft are automatically grounded whenever these drones are spotted. “Our planes and helicopters are operating just a couple hundred feet above the ground, leaving no room to maneuver if a drone appears,” explains Cal Fire public information officer Scott McLean.

Seated behind the pilot in the Bronco’s tandem cockpit is a Cal Fire expert who has six radios to stay in touch with other firefighters, agencies, the media, and airport control towers. Above the observer aircraft, which can circle the flame and smoke for up to three hours at a time, a number of other technologies work at the strategic level.

Satellites owned by NASA, the European Union, the military, and other agencies are helping identify and track new wildfire outbreaks with cameras and sensors that can see in different wavelengths. The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey have long used Earth-observing satellite data to help model and predict where future wildfires might break out. But fire behavior specialists are warning that the old models may no longer apply to today’s hotter, faster, larger fires.

“When you burn 1.5 million acres in two weeks,” notes Cal Fire scientist David Sapsis, “that kind of fire event is unprecedented.”

In early September, a NASA Gulfstream jet with an imaging radar slung in a pod on its belly flew over Northern California’s LNU Lightning Complex Fire, which decimated parts of wine country. Peering through the smoke, the radar produced a close-up, high-resolution picture showing how the fire was moving across the landscape.

“This instrument is very versatile in allowing us to detect soil moisture and vegetation structure and biomass,” says Yunling Lou, who manages the radar program out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

The JPL radar can penetrate smoke and clouds and measure ground height to within a quarter inch. That enables it to provide real-time mapping for fire management teams, as well as to map fire damage. It can also track which burn areas are most susceptible to landslides and debris flows during the rainy season, as happened with the Montecito mudflow of 2018 that killed 23 people and injured 163.

California’s Air Force

Cal Fire has the largest firefighting air fleet in the world. At present it includes 56 state-owned and 11 leased aircraft.

Based out of the former McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento and with 22 air stations up and down the state, Cal Fire can be over a newly reported fire within 20 minutes. The aircraft can observe the fires, dispatch “Helitack” firefighting crews from helicopters, as well as release water and fire retardant.

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A Los Angeles County Firehawk helicopter drops water on the northern flank of the Bobcat Fire in September. The Firehawk, a new addition to California's fleet, is a fast helicopter, so pilots can fly firefighting teams more quickly to new fires.

The Cal Fire Firehawk, a new helicopter, is faster, so pilots can fly firefighting teams more quickly to new fires. The Firehawk can also drop 1,000 gallons of water—three times as much as older helicopters—and then use its retractable snorkel to refill its tank from the nearest body of water.

Another major technological upgrade to the helicopter fleet is night vision goggles for the pilots, long used by the military. This will allow the Firehawks to do tactical flying, firefighting, and rescues in darkness. In early September, the goggles, which can also peer through smoke, made it possible for the California Air National Guard to rescue over 200 trapped campers from the Creek Fire.

The next tech?

Given how quickly drones have been adopted for firefighting, it seesm certain we’ll be seeing flocks of them over wildfires in the next few years. But Dennis Brown, Cal Fire’s senior chief of aviation, is quick to admit that, critical as aircraft are, “it’s boots on the ground that put out fire.”

And it’s today’s frontline firefighters, heavy equipment operators, and fire incident managers who will decide the right tools and direction to improve firefighting.

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A firefighter reloads a flare gun at the Bobcat Fire in September. Firefighters shoot what they call stubbies or sausages—incendiary flare projectiles—into brush. That starts backfires dozens to hundreds of feet off the road that act to slow an approaching fire.

During the past five to 10 years, many crews have begun packing smoke-penetrating thermal-imaging cameras that are useful for spotting fire movement and hot spots otherwise hidden by heavy smoke, providing added safety. Materials science has also offered firefighters some relief, by creating lighter and more durable flame-resistant and breathable clothing. It has dramatically reduced heat casualties in areas where summer temperatures can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit even before anything catches fire.

Asked what new technology he’d like to see next, Suarez suggests better communication tools to safely operate in the smoke.

“When I was in the Navy we had something where the whole fleet could see where everyone was and what they were doing. It’d be nice to have a (ground-based) system where we know where we all are and communicate better with live video to help us with our decision-making and our situational awareness,” he says.