Drone crash starts fire in Oregon

burned drone starts fire

Above: The burned drone. Photo by Cameron Austin-Connolly

(Originally published at 5:10 p.m. PDT July 11, 2018)

A small drone started a vegetation fire when it crashed near Springfield, Oregon this week. On July 10 Cameron Austin-Connolly was flying his drone over a field when a large unleashed dog left its owner, ran and jumped on him. The impact knocked the controller out of his hands and the drone immediately went out of control and crashed. As you can see in the video (that Mr. Austin-Connolly gave us permission to use) within about three seconds the still operating camera recorded flames.

You can also see two dogs running at Mr. Austin-Connolly.

He wrote on his Facebook page:

My drone crashes and when I go to look for it I saw smoke and flames so I called 911. Springfield FD quickly showed up and put out the flames. They even returned my drone and gopro. The Fire Marshall said that was their first drone fire.

In case you’re wondering about the reaction of the dogs’ owner, Mr. Austin-Connolly said he just kept walking and didn’t say anything.

Mr. Austin-Connolly told us, “it is a hand built first person view drone, or FPV done. Some people also call them racing drones since they are fast.”

He said it was using a lithium polymer, or “lipo”, battery.

Most small consumer-sized drones use lithium ion batteries, while racing drones generally operate with lithium polymer batteries.

The battery that was in the drone. The label says: “Infinity, 1300 MAH, race spec”. Photo by Cameron Austin-Connolly

In March we wrote about the crash of a drone that started a 335-acre fire on the Coconino National Forest in Northern Arizona. Few details about that drone were available, except that it was about 16″ x 16″.  The comments by our readers developed a great deal of information about rechargeable batteries and the possibility of them catching fire. We also learned about several other drone crashes that started fires.

In May we published an article about the fact that electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries present a complex and hazardous situation for firefighters responding to a vehicle accident.

The fact is, there are many examples of both lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries catching fire. There is no doubt that when a lithium ion battery is subject to an impact, a short circuit can occur in one or more of the cells, creating heat which may ignite the chemicals inside the battery. This can spread to the adjoining cells and lead to the condition known as “thermal runaway” in which the fire escalates. If as in a vehicle, there are thousands of batteries, it can be extremely difficult to extinguish the blaze. And worse, it can reignite days or weeks later.

When compact fluorescent light bulbs were introduced they saved energy but were slow to get fully bright and many people thought the color of the light was unpleasant. I knew then that it was immature lighting technology. There were going to be better options. Now LED bulbs save even more energy, come in various light temperatures (colors), and illuminate at near full brightness immediately. For now, they are expensive, but will still pay for themselves in three to five years.

Lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries are the compact fluorescent bulbs of battery technology. They are too heavy, don’t hold enough power, and they too often catch fire. No one wants to be on an airplane when flames erupt from an e-cigarette, cell phone, wireless headphones, or laptop computer, all of which can ignite even if they are turned off.

So until that next major step in battery technology occurs, what do we do about drones? Is the risk so low that we should not be concerned? When land managers enact fire restrictions during periods of high wildfire danger, do we also prohibit the use of drones? Should drones ever be allowed over vegetation in a fire-prone environment during wildfire season? And what about the hundreds of drones owned and operated by the Department of the Interior that flew 5,000 missions last year? Not all are battery operated, but some are.

We thank Mr. Austin-Connolly for providing the information, photos, and the video. When we asked, he said, “If my experience can be helpful I’m all for it.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.
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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

10 thoughts on “Drone crash starts fire in Oregon”

  1. Dear Bill,

    Thanks for sharing this story. Contrary to your headline however, drones don’t cause wildfires, people do.

    The facts as you report them:

    The operator chose to fly the drone at the time and location of his choice.

    The operator built the drone with a known source of material prone to igniting.

    The operator knew the high probability of the “racing” drone crashing.

    Conclusion? PEOPLE cause 9 out of 10 wildfires.

    Nice try blaming the dog though.

    #OnlyYOU can prevent wildland fires.

  2. Who’da thunk!? Honestly, I never even gave a thought to the ignition potential. GREAT information, I’ll be sharing it with my Grandson and his techie buddies.jw

  3. Heck with the fire, that was minor compared to the actions, or lack thereof, of the dog owner! This entire incident wouldn’t have occurred if the dog owner had been responsible and following the law. There is no place in this country that doesn’t have a leash law. I for one am sick and tired of this irresponsibility. I almost lost expensive camera equipment recently to the exact same kind of incident. This young man should get his drone replaced and the dog owner should have to pay for the fire suppression as well!

  4. As a dog lover myself (had them all my life) and the proud owner of two of them, I think the dogs should have been leashed and the owner should have apologized for his dogs’ behavior. To just keep walking and not say anything is as unacceptable as the dogs jumping on a stranger. Not taking responsibility for a dog’s actions not only influences how people view the owner, but ultimately the dog is viewed as aggressive and out of control. Sorry, but the dogs were most definitely to blame partly for the drone crash/fire.

  5. No, your analysis is completely deficient. You omit the most important fact, that the pilot only crashed the drone because he was attacked by the dogs.

  6. The dog owner is as responsible as anyone in this case. You could see on the video the dogs were at full speed toward the operator.
    I will say that if you are flying in dry conditions as was shown, you should actually have a fire extiguixser with you to prevent a large scale fire.
    And should have had a spotter… May have helped keep the dogs away.
    Accidents do happen, and both the dog owner and operator are somewhat at fault.

  7. When flying FPV, one should have spotter. You can’t see your surroundings wearing goggles.

  8. I agree that the pilot should have had a spotter and a fire extinguisher. However don’t go off on the dangers of Lithium batteries, if this was a gas powered drone it could have had exactly the same effect. Car fires are quite common, you check the statistics on car fires by googling for the stats ). The takeaway on this example is that you should carry at least a fire extinguisher appropriate for your circumstances.

  9. There is already a solution, UL certification listings are available to ensure the technology is safe. Only one drone has it so far, and home-made versions won’t adhere to the requirements or be tested. This should be a requirement for all drones.

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