NBC News Reports: Drones are Fighting Wildfires in Surprising Ways

Wildfires in the U.S. were brutal last summer, scorching more than 8.8 million acres and cloaking the Pacific Northwest in smoke and ash. In California alone, more than 40 people died and 8,400 buildings were destroyed in the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history.

Things may only get worse in years to come. Climate change is lengthening fire seasons and triggering more and larger blazes.

But aerial drones may help save the day.

From tiny quadcopters to big fixed-wing aircraft, drones are showing that they can detect, contain and even extinguish fires faster and with greater safety. They give firefighters a bird’s-eye view of the terrain and help them determine where a fire will spread — so they can make swift decisions about where fire crews should go and which residents need to be evacuated.

Safer and more versatile

Drones have key advantages over conventional aircraft.

For one thing, the airplanes and helicopters used to survey wildfires and drop retardant can’t fly in poor conditions — and they’re often in short supply. “The sheer cost of operating, maintaining, and training is huge, so we run out of aircraft real quick,” says Chad Runyan, acting manager of the U.S. Forest Service’s unmanned aircraft systems program.

And flying over raging fires puts pilots and crew at risk. Plane and helicopter crashes accounted for 24 percent of wildland firefighter deaths between 2006 and 2016, according to the Forest Service.

Drones can be equipped with infrared cameras that peer through smoke, as well as sensors for wind direction and other weather variables that affect how wildfires spread. They can whiz through canyons and other cramped spaces where helicopters can’t fly and glide low enough to capture high-resolution footage.

And if a fire starts to close in on a crew, drones can identify a quick escape route. “If we have a group of firefighters trapped we can easily send three or four drones up there,” Runyan says.

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