FAA gives approval for company to use swarms of drones to reforest burned areas

DroneSeed will be allowed to operates drones beyond visual line of sight

Updated December 7, 2020   |   8:20 p.m. PST

DroneSeed
A apparatus for dropping seed vessels is attached to a drone after being reloaded with tree seeds. Bloomberg image.

DroneSeed, a company that uses fleets of drones to reforest areas burned in wildfires, received approval in October from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for its heavy-lift drones to operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and to expand its use of heavy-lift drone swarms to California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. They previously had FAA authorization to operate in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

The FAA’s action allows DroneSeed to begin reforesting once a fire is contained and airspace is clear. Their aircraft drop seeds that are encapsulated in vessels consisting of four to six seeds, fertilizer, natural pest deterrents, and fibrous material which absorbs water and increases survivability.

The company has designed a system around a swarm of drones that can drop tree seeds in places where they have a decent chance of survival. First they survey the area with a drone using lidar and a multispectral camera to map the terrain and the vegetation. The next step is to use artificial intelligence to sort through the mapping data to find areas where a dropped seed is most likely to germinate, in order to avoid, for example, rock, roads, and unburned locations. After the aircraft are launched, the five aircraft operate autonomously as they fly grid patterns.

Droneseed
DroneSeed. CNN image

A swarm of five drones can reseed 25 to 50 acres each day, said Grant Canary, CEO of DroneSeed. While on a seed-dropping mission each drone can stay in the air for 8 to 18 minutes, then returns to the helibase where it is reloaded with seed vessels and the battery is replaced. Mr. Canary said it takes about 6 minutes to replace the battery and the 57-pound seed vessel container.

DroneSeed makes their aircraft, they are not off-the-shelf consumer level drones. Batteries power the electric motors that drive the propellers. When at a work site, the workers bring five batteries for each aircraft which are recharged with a proprietary charging system run off a generator.

The company has about 40 employees, 10 of whom may be manufacturing seed vessels for ongoing or upcoming reseeding projects.

The company is already reforesting some of the areas burned this year in the one million-acre August Complex of fires in Northern California, and the 173,000-acre Holiday Farm Fire in Oregon.

While most aircraft hired by land management agencies are paid by the flight hour and daily availability rates, DroneSeed charges by the acre.

After sites are selected, seed vessels are manufactured, in many cases containing native Douglas Fir or Ponderosa Pine seeds harvested from the general part of the country where they will be later dispersed.

Currently DroneSeed is the only company in the United States approved to operate with heavy-lift drone swarms, according to the company.

The video below describes the reseeding system beginning at 0:32 and ending at 3:52.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick.

Report issued for water tender rollover in Northern California

Mendocino National Forest, September 27, 2020

Water Tender rollover
The water tender after the rollover. September 27, 2020. IMT photo.

This is the 66th article on Wildfire Today about rollovers of wildland fire vehicles. But, it is the first we have heard about in 2020.

From the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center:


At approximately 0755 hours on September 27th, August Complex South Zone communications was notified of a Water Tender accident via radio by another Water Tender Operator who was also working in the area.

The Water Tender involved in the accident was full with approximately 4,000 gallons of water being utilized for road dust abatement.

Before experiencing radio challenges, the first Water Tender on scene was able to notify communications that there had been an accident and the Water Tender Operator had an injury to the shoulder, back and neck.

It is unknown if the driver was ejected from the vehicle during the accident, but the first water tender on scene did observe the driver climbing out from underneath the front bumper area of the wreckage.

Due to the accident’s location and lack of clarity of the nature of the accident/injuries, the Incident Management Team started a Life Flight response per the Medical and Incident Within an Incident (IWI) Plan. Upon activating the local Life Flight care provider, it was determined that the closest two helicopters were unavailable due to maintenance issues, leaving the third option of an ETA of 35 minutes. The decision was made to utilize the exclusive use Helicopter 514, staffed with an EMT, to transport the paitient with a 10 minute ETA.

A Safety Officer assigned to the incident arrived on scene, provided a size-up of the incident and assumed command of the IWI. When units arrived on scene, the Water Tender was upright, resting on its wheels against a tree with its tank separated from the chassis.

The area of the accident had a suitable landing spot. The patient was loaded into the helicopter and taken to the local trauma center for evaluation.

Water Tender rollover
Photo shows the divot in the road created by the upper passenger corner of the Water Tender’s tank during the rollover. September 27, 2020. IMT photo.

LESSONS

  • Always take the time to put on your seatbelt. This should be a given because it is a state law, but in a rush to accomplish a task or when a task is short duration, clicking a seatbelt can get skipped. A properly worn seatbelt can reduce injuries during an unintended outcome.
  • It is critical for any vehicle operator to keep vehicles at a reduced speed to the extent possible while vehicles are under heavy load driving on surfaces with increased stopping distances.
  • Beware of soft shoulders, narrow sections, blind corners, compromised visibility, and distractions— any combination of these conditions is especially dangerous.
  • Given the frequency with which water tenders roll on wildland fires, be very judicious about assigning work for tenders. Always ask: “Is this mission necessary?”

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has reports for 13 Water Tender Rollovers from 2015 to 2020.

Report: Firefighter killed on August Complex was assisting with backfiring operation

The firefighter was the engine boss on a contract engine from Texas working on the fire in Northern California

August Complex Fatality
Leslie Johnson / Cal Fire / San Francisco Chronicle

Additional information now available about the circumstances in which a firefighter was killed August 31 on the August Complex of fires in northern California reveals that the tragedy occurred during a  backfiring operation. The San Francisco Chronicle reported details about the fatality after receiving documents from CAL FIRE obtained through a public records request.

Diana Jones Cresson Volunteer Fire Department, Texas
Diana Jones (Photo by Cresson Volunteer Fire Department)

Diana Jones, 63, from Cresson, Texas, was the engine boss of a three-person contract engine crew that was assigned to the fire on the Mendocino National Forest. Along with supervisors and at least one other engine they were on a 20-foot wide logging road igniting and holding a mid-slope backfire below the road.

view of accident site
Google Earth 3-D view of accident site

When a spot fire occurred above the road Jones’ crew applied water on the fire. The spot fire continued to grow and then the fire in the drainage below the road intensified. The supervisor ordered the crew to “Get out of there!” but Jones could not hear the command. The driver got out of the engine to tell her that they had to leave, and then picked up a nozzle to knock down the flames.

At that time Jones got in the driver’s seat in order to move the truck  but another engine farther up the road had turned around to come back to help. With the narrow dirt road then blocked by the second engine in the front and two other vehicles to the rear, the driver, still dismounted, told her to follow him or her toward the second engine.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

As the engine’s back-up alarm beeped, signaling the vehicle was in reverse, Jones’ right wheels inched closer to the edge. The commander yelled over the radio: “E1, stop, stop, stop, stop … stop!”

The engine tumbled off the dirt shoulder, the report said, slamming into a tree about 15 feet below.

“Vehicle over side, in the fire,” a commander radioed, asking for air support.

The firefighter in the backseat tried to pull Jones out of the engine, as windows popped and shattered from the heat, but the temperature became too intense. The firefighter exited the driver’s-side rear door and crawled to the road with burns to the legs, arms, hands and face, the report said.

The task force leader put on breathing apparatus to search for Jones and the engine operator, but Jones suffered “fatal thermal injuries due to the engine burn over,” Cal Fire concluded. The report does not indicate whether the preemptive backfire or the larger conflagration ultimately burned Jones.

The Chronicle’s article had a little background information about Jones:

Jones had joined the Cresson volunteers five years ago after her husband died and she moved closer to her two sons. She had worked as a hairdresser and in logistics in the Middle East, said Ron Becker, chief of the small Texas fire department.

“She took to it aggressively and very well,” said Becker, adding she got her license as an emergency medical technician and certification in wildfire fighting. “I would never suggest to you that she didn’t know what she was doing and I’d never suggest that she wasn’t totally capable of what she was doing.”

August Complex Fatality
Leslie Johnson / Cal Fire / San Francisco Chronicle

August Fire grows to over one million acres

Gigafire in Northern California

Map of the August Complex of fires
Map of the August Complex of fires in Northern California, October 6, 2020.

On August 16 a weather pattern that does not occur often began working its way slowly through northern California. During the next three days about 2,500 lightning strikes were recorded that started over 600 fires, creating what became the Siege of ’20. The lightning was a result of moist unstable air from Tropical Storm Fausto colliding with a high pressure ridge during a heat wave. Many of the thunderstorm cells produced little or no rain that reached the ground. The lightning ignited dry fuels causing fires that spread rapidly, quickly overwhelming the suppression capability of local, state, and federal fire organizations. Some fires were not staffed at all for days, and for weeks most incidents struggled, with fewer resources than they needed.

The August Complex of fires is the result of 37 blazes that started on August 17 and eventually burned together on the Mendocino National Forest. It has now blackened 1,004,373 acres becoming a gigafire, the largest fire in the recorded history of California, by far. The scope of the fire is almost difficult to comprehend — approximately 72 miles by 32 miles. It is larger than Rhode Island which is 988,832 acres.

Resources assigned include 65 hand crews, 353 fire engines, and 31 helicopters for a total of 4,075 personnel. About 100 residences and 104 other structures have been destroyed . The estimated costs to date are $166 million.

The fire is divided into two zones with individual areas managed by four Type 1 Incident Management Teams overseen by an Area Command Team.

Largest fires, California, October 6, 2020
Largest fires in the recorded history of California as of October 6, 2020. The number of structures includes all types of structures, from small sheds to large commercial buildings.
August Complex fire
A firefighter bucks a log near Van Duzen Road on the Northwest Zone of the August Complex. Credit: Jacob Welsh

Our take on the largest fires list

The next three fires on the “Top 20 Largest California Wildfires” are all complexes, comprised of multiple separate fires that were arbitrarily clumped together on paper and called a complex. If they are listed at all on a Top 20 list, they should at least have an asterisk indicating each complex is actually multiple fires. If they burn together they should be treated as one fire. Geographically separate fires should be listed independently.

August Complex of fires in Northern California has burned 846,000 acres

It is the largest fire in California’s history — by far

Map of the August Complex of fires
Map of the August Complex of fires. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 1:12 p.m. PDT Sept. 22, 2020.

Four wildfires burning in California are so extraordinarily large that it takes two or more of the largest and highest qualified Incident Management Teams (IMT) to organize and supervise the suppression of each these monster fires.

One of those, the 846,898-acre (that is not a typo) August Complex in Northern California has three Type 1 teams– CAL FIRE 5, Great Basin 2, and Alaska 1. This monster of a fire is 63 miles long (north to south) and at its widest point is 32 miles, east to west. The blaze is divided into three zones, West, North, and South Zones. The fire is the result of 37 fires that started on August 17, burning together on the Mendocino National Forest 32 miles southwest of Redding.

One firefighter, Diane Jones from a fire department in Texas, was killed in a vehicle accident August 31. Twenty-one residences have been destroyed.

One individual with COVID-19 symptoms and two other people who had contact with the individual are in isolation until they can be cleared by testing.

Resources assigned to the fire include 70 hand crews, 388 fire engines, and 35 helicopters for a total of 4,290 personnel — a figure that includes 125 California National Guard personnel.

Some lists of the largest fires in the recorded history of California circulating this year have listed complexes, multiple individual fires managed under one organization, high on the list. But a group of fires arbitrarily lumped under one IMT should not, for historical purposes, be ranked.

However, the August Complex is comprised of multiple fires that burned together and became one, so in my mind it legitimately belongs on the list as the largest in the recorded history of the state. The next three on the list at Wikipedia are all multiple-fire complexes; they should at least have asterisks explaining they are not single fires. But even if the multiple-fire complexes are included, the August Complex is still about 388,000 acres larger than number two on the list, the 2018 Mendocino Complex which consisted of two fires, River and Ranch.

bulldozer August Complex fire
Bulldozer on the 26 Road, north flank of the August Complex, Sept. 21, 2020. USFS photo by Mike McMillan.
firefighter August Complex fire
Lassen Hotshot, conducting a firing operation on the August Complex of fires, Sept. 21, 2020. USFS photo by Mike McMillan.

Over 15,000 personnel are battling California fires

Cooler weather has slowed some fires, but the August Complex grew by over 16,000 acres Tuesday

Updated August 26, 2020 | 11:38 a.m. PDT

California Fires August 26, 2020
California Fires August 26, 2020.

The  growth of the big complexes of fires in California, LNU, CZU, and SCU, has slowed in recent days, but the LNU and SCU Lightning Complexes still gained 4,509 and 5,717 acres respectively in the last 24 hours. The August Complex southwest of Red Bluff increased by 16,097 acres.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the lightning fires in California, including the most recent, click HERE.)

The blazes have charred more than 1.32 million acres, killed seven people, and destroyed nearly 2,000 structures. The fires are being fought by 280 hand crews, 2,400 fire engines, 300 dozers, and 370 water tenders for a total of 15,000 personnel.

In addition to the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group working on a request for firefighting assistance from Australia and Canada, California activated the National Guard for help containing the blazes. On August 23 CAL FIRE issued equipment to 270 soldiers as they were beginning basic fire training at Camp Roberts. Another group of 300 soldiers will arrive next week for training. CAL FIRE will embed with each 20-person crew a Captain and two firefighters for supervision.

Below are updates on some of the largest incidents in California, with data from CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service.

LNU Lightning Complex

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: North Bay
  • Counties: Napa, Lake, Yolo, Solano, Sonoma
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE Sonoma-Lake-Napa
  • Acres: 357,046. The largest fire in the complex is the Hennessey Fire, 299,763 . The Walbridge Fire west of Healdsburg is 54,923, and the Meyers Fire on the coast north of Jenner is 2,360.
  • Structures destroyed: 978
  • Personnel assigned: 2,207
  • Evacuation information:  CAL FIRE LNU Twitter page
  • Notes: Fires that merged to become the Hennessey Fire include Gamble, Green, Spanish, 5-10, Morgan, and Markley Fires.

SCU Lightning Complex

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: South Bay
  • Counties: Santa Clara, Alameda, Stanislaus, Contra Costa, San Joaquin
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE Santa Clara
  • Acres: 365,772
  • Structures destroyed: 31
  • Personnel assigned: 1,655
  • Evacuation information:  CAL FIRE SCU Twitter page
  • Notes: Fire activity has lessened due to favorable weather conditions and increased humidity across the complex. Deep seated heat still remains in the bottom of the steep, inaccessible drainages. During the evening fire crews held existing control line around the fire perimeter continuing to both reinforce and add new containment lines. When weather and conditions are favorable there will be a controlled burn operation inside the control line. This controlled burn will widen the buffer and consume fuel between the edge of the fire and the control line.

CZU August Lightning

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: South Bay
  • Counties: San Mateo, Santa Cruz
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE San Mateo-Santa Cruz
  • Acres: 79,640
  • Structures destroyed: 443
  • Personnel assigned: 1,697
  • Evacuation information: CAL FIRE CZU Twitter page
  • Notes: It is burning in Southern San Mateo County and Northern Santa Cruz County actively above the marine layer in the heavy timber and thick undergrowth.  Approximately 77,000 people have been evacuated.

River and Carmel Fires

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: Five miles south of Salinas, near Pine Canyon Rd. and River Rd.
  • Counties: Monterey
  • Administrative Unit: CAL FIRE San Benito-Monterey
  • Acres: 48,424
  • Structures destroyed: 30
  • Personnel assigned: 1,183
  • Evacuation information: CAL FIRE San Benito-Monterey Twitter page, and see maps produced by Monterey County here.
  • Notes: Firefighters patrolling the fire Tuesday confirmed that the fire remained within containment lines. The onshore winds from the northwest allowed the fire to travel very slowly to the south with in containment lines.The Carmel Fire 2 miles southwest of the River Fire has burned 6,901 acres and destroyed 37 structures.

Dolan Fire

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: on the coast 10 miles south of Big Sur
  • Counties: Monterey
  • Administrative Unit: U.S. Forest Service, Los Padres NF
  • Acres: 21,844
  • Structures destroyed: 0
  • Personnel assigned: 880
  • Evacuation information:
  • Notes: Fire behavior was moderate throughout Tuesday night. Crews performed structure defense in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and continued to protect private property and clear roadways around Partington and along Hwy. 1. Crews continued to secure direct and indirect lines to keep the fire out of Hermitage, Lucia and Morning Glory. Progress is slow due to rough terrain and lack of available crews. On Wednesday, crews will continue to focus on the northern and southern edges of the fire by constructing and enhancing control lines, with the priority being lines along McWay ridge and above Lucia northeast to Twin Peaks.

August Complex

  • Updated August 26, 2020 at 1:13 p.m. PDT
  • Location: 18 miles southwest of Red Bluff
  • Counties: Tehama, Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Trinity
  • Administrative Unit: Mendocino National Forest and CAL FIRE
  • Acres: 197,148
  • Structures destroyed: 10
  • Personnel assigned: 476
  • Evacuation information:
  • Notes: As of Tuesday evening: firefighters are opening preexisting fire breaks as control lines on the south portion of the Doe fire (160,436 acres 31% contained). Structure protection is continuing when it is safe to do so. Line construction is continuing on the Glade Fire (18,307 acres 0% contained). Firefighters are working in coordination with Crane Mills Timber and using dozers to tie in the north portion of the Tatham fire (8,958 acres 11% contained). .