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Southern Oregon wildfire teams deploy drones that shoot flaming ping-pong balls

Drone_control.jpg
Roman Battaglia
/
Jefferson Public Radio
A pilot gets ready to fly the drone for a mapping mission

Wildland firefighters are always looking for new technology to make their jobs easier and safer. Firefighters are now using drones in their fight to protect communities.

Since Mid-August, firefighters have been battling the Rum Creek Fire in rough, mountainous terrain along the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon. Traditionally, teams use a combination of people on the ground and manned aircraft above to identify spot fires, where flying embers have sparked new fires outside the main fire’s perimeter.

Traversing the thick brush up steep hills can be both exhausting and dangerous for firefighters. That’s why a small four-man team is just south of the fire on Galice Road with technology that is being used more to help identify fires without the risk.

The pilots are launching a coffee-table-sized drone into the thick, smokey air above.

As the six-propeller aircraft flies up, it disappears into the smoke. The team turns towards a large TV inside a trailer, where they can see from the drone’s cameras.

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Roman Battaglia
/
Jefferson Public Radio
The drone takes off into the smoke

“It’s got a really powerful infrared camera and so we can see where it’s at,” says Patrick Edwards, a pilot for the Interagency Unmanned Aircraft System program. “So we don’t have to send humans in there to walk through the broken terrain.”

The infrared camera detects heat signatures. As the drone crosses the Rogue River towards the Rum Creek Fire, hotspots appear in bright red on the screen.

Edwards says the camera isn’t detailed enough for mapping, but it’s a valuable tool to identify where firefighters should be prioritized.

Another benefit of this drone is catching what humans might miss. Edwards says the drone’s camera can spot a fire as small as a dinner plate, something a team of firefighters on the ground might miss as they navigate difficult terrain.

The use of drones in fighting wildfires is relatively new. Edwards says it’s really kicked off in the last three years.

"We don’t have to send humans in there to walk through the broken terrain."

The four person team in Oregon has assembled from around the country to pilot these drones. Edwards hails from the Everglades in Florida. Another pilot, Jordan Black, came from Tennessee. Black says there aren’t enough pilots around the country to form dedicated companies yet.

“We’re currently kinda scattered all over,” Black says. “But moving forward I think it will probably be more cohesive groups that are going out.”

The Interagency UAS program is composed of federal firefighting agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Black says firefighting agencies are recognizing the value of these drones.

“Last year there was a large push for trainings,” he says. “And 10 to 12 trainings were completed with 10 to 20 students per training. So we’re in the hundreds at this point.”

These drones aren’t used just to look at the fire from afar, they’re also used to proactively start new fires, with flaming ping-pong balls.

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Roman Battaglia
/
Jefferson Public Radio
Patrick Edwards points at the areas where they've ignited fires along the tops of ridges

“These lines right here, they’re called ping-pong balls that we dropped into the woods to try to establish fire on these ridgelines,” Edwards says, pointing to a map on the TV, where they’ve ignited fires along the tops of four ridges near the riverbank. “So they’ll start backing down these drainages so it doesn’t shoot up and take out timber.”

If everything goes well, the controlled burns will prevent the fire from crossing the river.

Behind Edwards are several boxes of the “ping-pong balls” used to ignite the fires. The drone is fitted with a special machine that holds the balls, and injects them with ethylene glycol, triggering a chemical reaction.

“They’re about yea big and they drop out of the aircraft gently,” he explains. “And after about 30 seconds they ignite.”

The controlled burns they started that morning caught successfully, and their goal was accomplished. Firefighters expected high winds shortly after the controlled burns took place, and because those hills had already burned, the fire never made it across the river.

Two men put away the drone
Roman Battaglia
/
Jefferson Public Radio
The team prepares to store the drone after its flight.

Edwards says the drone itself can cost upwards of $40,000, including the camera, the fire ignition machine and the drone itself. But when comparing that one-time cost to the value it brings in keeping people safe, he says, it’s worth it.

“We’re doing the IR [infrared], looking out here for spots,” Edwards says. “Those guys that are supposed to be out here looking through the brush, looking for hot spots, they twist a knee, break a leg, hurt their back, they’re out. It could be a lifelong injury.”

Expect to see these drones become standard among the tools firefighters use in wildfires. As the drone safely returns to its landing pad, the team begins to pack up their equipment to head to the northern edge of the fire, where another supervisor has requested their help.

After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the west coast.