Drones to help crews combat future Grand Canyon wildfires

Above: A drone is used to assist wildlfire operations, as shown in this file photo from Bill Gabbert.

Wildland firefighters at Grand Canyon National Park have added drones to their toolkits, marking the latest iteration of unmanned aircraft systems’ love-hate relationship when it comes to wildfire. 

Rangers have started using drones to scout fires from above, the Grand Canyon News reported. From the article published Tuesday:

Justin Jager, interagency aviation officer for Grand Canyon National Park, Kaibab and Coconino National Forests and Flagstaff and Verde Valley Area National Monuments, said the drones are utilized in conjunction with traditional methods. Operators use the devices to scout fire lines, or communicate information to other personnel in the area.

The unmanned systems aren’t replacing fixed-wing scouting planes. Rather, they’re being used to search a fire’s outer edges and providing intelligence that can help establish stronger fire lines.

Also from the Grand Canyon News: 

“We’re taking what we’re learning and creating a guide for other agencies, like BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or other national parks to create their own programs,” Jager said. “I think they can all benefit from adding this tool.”

Drones and the Grand Canyon have been in the news for other reasons of late, most recently in assisting search and rescue operations for LouAnn Merrell and her step-grandson Jackson Standefer. Both went missing in April while on a hike — the boy’s body has since been recovered, though the woman has not yet been located.

Grand Canyon National Park is the only park with its own fleet of unmanned aircraft that can be used for locating people who have gotten lost, stranded, injured or killed. Under a program that began last fall, it has five drones and four certified operators, the Associated Press reported. 

The drones are about 18 inches across and 10 inches high, with a battery life of about 20 minutes. Drone operators watch the video in real time and then analyze it again at the end of the day.

As fire season revs up, so will conversations about the crossroads of the devices and wildfire. While crews have successfully used drones for recon and to aid in igniting prescribed burns, it’s only a matter of time until a curious hobbyist — once again — flies too close to firefighting operations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has come out in the past supporting the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service in their simple message to drone operators: If you fly; we can’t.

“Flying a drone near aerial firefighting aircraft doesn’t just pose a hazard to the pilots,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “When aircraft are grounded because an unmanned aircraft is in the vicinity, lives are put at greater risk.”

That didn’t matter. After a string of incidents last year, the FAA warned in a mass email to recreational drone operators that those “who interfere with wildfire suppression efforts are subject to civil penalties of up to $27,500 and possible criminal prosecution.”

Looking for more about the intersection of drones and wildfire? This dated, yet relevant, Smithsonian video below documents the use of the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Drone in the August, 2013, Rim Fire in California.

Man arrested for allegedly starting fatal wildfire near Athens, Greece

A 28-year-old man has been arrested after his weekend brush-burning around a greenhouse ignited a destructive and deadly wildfire roughly 40 miles outside of Athens, Greece.

The fire, which started Sunday, burned a forested area and charred a house on the outskirts of Agioi Theodoroi, the Associated Press reported.

The victim is believed to have been an elderly woman who was reported missing earlier in the day. Two other people suffered burn-related injuries.

The man is accused of causing a fire through negligence while burning dried-out vegetation next to a greenhouse, the National Herald reported. 

 

Alaska couple acquitted in Sockeye Fire trial

Above: Sockeye Fire. Photo by Mat-SU Borough spokesperson.

After just one day of deliberation, a jury last week acquitted an Alaska couple on all counts related to the destructive Sockeye Fire.

Amy DeWitt, 43, and Greg Imig, were charged with a dozen counts each related to the 2015 fire. Among them: second-degree negligent burning, burning without clearing the area, allowing the wildfire to spread and reckless endangerment, the Alaska Dispatch News reported. If convicted, they could have faced fines and jail time.

The three-week trial ended Friday when the six-person jury returned “not guilty” verdicts on all counts.

From the Alaska Dispatch News: 

In a prepared statement following the verdict, Imig told reporters the fire was “very costly” for the couple, in both the physical property lost and the price of defending themselves at trial. But he said it was necessary for the “real information” to come out.

“From the beginning, (DeWitt) and I have been forthright and honest and, frankly, this trial by the State of Alaska was wasteful and unneeded,” he read. “We knew we had to take this path to clear our name.”

Defense attorneys and private investigators maintained the state’s investigation was inconclusive as to the fire’s cause. They also cited the Wildfire Origin and Cause and Determination Handbook, arguing state investigators should have better documented the property and taken more steps to allay any “confirmation bias.”

The Sockeye Fire burned 7,220 acres and destroyed 55 homes.

Jury begins deliberations for Alaska couple charged with starting 2015 Sockeye Firea

Above: Sockeye Fire, June 14, 2015. Photo by Brent Johnson.

A jury this week is weighing whether an Anchorage, Alaska, couple is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of carelessly starting the destructive Sockeye Fire in in June, 2015.

Amy DeWitt, 43, and Greg Imig, are charged with a dozen counts each related to the fire. Among them: second-degree negligent burning, burning without clearing the area, allowing the wildfire to spread and reckless endangerment, the Alaska Dispatch News reported. If convicted, they face fines and potential jail time.

From the Alaska Dispatch News coverage of the weeks-long trial:

The state contends the fire started when a burn pit on the edge of Imig’s Willow property crept out into the forest in warm and windy conditions. It was their recklessness, Senta told jurors Wednesday, that led to the blaze that burned over 7,000 acres and destroyed over 100 structures, including 55 homes.

Through the course of the trial defense attorneys disagreed, arguing the state forestry investigation was flawed in both the scope and the science.

Defense attorneys and private investigators maintained the state’s investigation was inconclusive as to the fire’s cause. They also cited the Wildfire Origin and Cause and Determination Handbook, arguing state investigators should have better documented the property and taken more steps to allay any “confirmation bias.”

The Sockeye Fire burned 7,220 acres and destroyed 55 homes.

Video: West Mims Fire grows, attack intensifies

As firefighters on the ground continue efforts to get a handle on the West Mims Fire on the Georgia-Florida border, the attack from the air has intensified.

More than 700 personnel are assigned to the country’s largest and most actively burning wildfire, which remains just 12 percent contained after having burned about 144,000 acres as of Thursday morning.

The morning briefing for the West Mims Fire on Thursday, May 11. Photo via Southeast Region of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management Division.
The morning briefing for the West Mims Fire on Thursday, May 11. Photo via Southeast Region of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management Division.

The Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT), a DC-10 fitted with a retardant delivery system, arrived Tuesday afternoon but was only able to make one fire retardant drop before low visibility due to settling smoke made subsequent air operations unsafe, officials said.

The aircraft made two 12,000-gallon retardant drops on Wednesday. Extreme conditions are expected to continue through the rest of the week, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees and winds gusting to 20 mph forecast — Red Flag Warnings are also expected to be issued in the area.

Researchers testing fire shelter prototypes on South Dakota prescribed burns

Above: Left to right: Bobby Williams, Nick Mink/BLM, Blake Stewart/USFWS, and Joe Roise inspect the fire shelter model currently used by firefighters, which was included in the field test for comparative purposes. Photo courtesy  Great Plains Fire Management Zone 

North Carolina State University researchers this week began field testing new fire shelter prototypes during prescribed fire operations in South Dakota.

About a year after the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots from the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire, the U.S. Forest Service entered into a collaborative agreement with the NASA Langley Research Center. The goal: to examine potential improvements to fire shelter performance. University researchers also received a FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant to develop new material that improved existing fabric technology and enhanced current fire shelters.

Researchers from North Carolina State’s College of Textiles worked with the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources to study and offer up potential improvements. 

Until this week, those efforts were generally confined to the university’s lab. But researchers joined an East River Fire Training Exchange training crew for burn operations in eastern South Dakota to test a new fire shelter prototype.

“The whole project is extremely important because it can save lives across the nation,” Professor Joe Roise said in a news release, posted to InciWeb. “That’s the bottom line: saving lives.”

North Carolina State University Joe Roise (foreground) and Bobby Williams (background) set up their fire shelter test site within the Eyecamp prescribed fire area. The sensor poles shown here measure and record the temperature at 2, 4, 6, and 8 feet in height as the fire passes through the area. Photo courtesy Great Plains Fire Management Zone.
North Carolina State University Joe Roise (foreground) and Bobby Williams (background) set up their fire shelter test site within the Eyecamp prescribed fire area. The sensor poles shown here measure and record the temperature at 2, 4, 6, and 8 feet in height as the fire passes through the area. Photo courtesy Great Plains Fire Management Zone.

Operations are taking place this week in the Madison Wetland Management District.

Field testing is likely to continue in coming weeks and months. The shelter models will be tested in fires on Virginian marshland, north Florida pine forests and timber throughout Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Burn Boss Blake Stewart/USFWS (left) and Firing Boss Nick Mink/BLM (right) walk out to the fire shelter test site after the fire has passed.
Burn Boss Blake Stewart/USFWS (left) and Firing Boss Nick Mink/BLM (right) walk out to the fire shelter test site after the fire has passed. Photo courtesy Great Plains Fire Management Zone.