Southern Oregon Teams Fighting Wildfires Use Drones To Launch Burning Ping-pong Balls

Wildland firefighters are constantly seeking for new technologies to simplify and secure their work. Drones are increasingly being used by firefighters in their battle to defend towns.

Firefighters have been fighting the Rum Creek Fire in rugged, hilly terrain along the Rogue River in southwest Oregon since mid-August. Teams often utilize a combination of ground personnel and manned aircraft overhead to locate spot fires, which are flames that have started as a result of flying embers beyond the main fire’s perimeter.

For firefighters, navigating the dense vegetation up steep hills may be hazardous and taxing. Due to technology that is increasingly being utilized to help spot fires without the danger, a small four-person team is now operating just south of the current fire on Galice Road.

A coffee table-sized drone is being launched by the pilots into the hazy, smoky air above.

The six-propeller plane ascends and vanishes in the haze. The group turns to face a giant TV inside a trailer where they can watch what is happening thanks to the drone’s cameras.

The drone ascends into the haze.

Pilot with the Interagency Unmanned Aircraft System program Patrick Edwards explains, “It’s got a fairly strong infrared camera and so we can see where it is.” β€œSo we don’t have to put humans in there to go over the shattered terrain.”

Heat signatures are picked up by the infrared camera. On the screen, hotspots in bright red appear as the drone crosses the Rogue River to the Rum Creek Fire.

Edwards says the camera isn’t detailed enough for mapping, but it’s a vital tool to determine where firemen should be focused.

This drone also has the advantage of capturing things that people would overlook. A crew of firemen on the ground can miss a fire because they are navigating rough terrain, but according to Edwards, the drone’s camera can detect a fire as tiny as a dinner plate.

Drones are currently being used for the first time to combat wildfires. In the last three years, according to Edwards, it has really taken off.

“We don’t need to put anyone in there to traverse the unstable ground.”

Southern Oregon Teams Fighting Wildfires Use Drones
Southern Oregon Teams Fighting Wildfires Use Drones

To operate these drones, a four-person crew from across the nation has gathered in Oregon. Edwards is a native of Florida’s Everglades. Jordan Black, another pilot, was a native of Tennessee. According to Black, there aren’t currently enough pilots in the nation to establish specialized businesses.

We’re kind of dispersed right now, adds Black. But going forward, I believe there will likely be more coherent groups leaving.

Federal firefighting organizations including the U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are included in the Interagency UAS program.

According to Black, firefighting organizations are seeing the advantages of these drones.

“There was a big push for training last year,” he claims. “And 10 to 12 pieces of training, each with 10 to 20 participants, were completed. So, at this time, we number in the hundreds.

These drones are used to deliberately create new flames with blazing ping-pong balls, not only to observe existing fires from a distance.

Patrick Edwards gestures to the locations where they started fires along ridgetops.

Edwards points to a map on the TV and explains that they started fires along the tops of four ridges close to the riverbed. “These lines right here, they’re called ping-pong balls that we dropped into the woods to attempt to build fire on these ridgelines,” he adds. In order to prevent these drainages from shooting up and destroying wood, they will begin to back them down.

The controlled burns should stop the fire from crossing the river if all goes according to plan.

There are many cartons of the “ping-pong balls” used to start the flames behind Edwards. A unique device attached to the drone holds the balls while injecting them with ethylene glycol to start a chemical reaction.

He tells that they are around a year old and gently exit the airplane. And then they ignite after approximately 30 seconds.

Their intention was achieved when the controlled burns they started that morning were effectively contained. After the planned burns, firefighters anticipated strong winds, but because the hills had previously burnt, the fire never crossed the river.

Southern Oregon Teams Fighting Wildfires Use Drones
Southern Oregon Teams Fighting Wildfires Use Drones

After the drone’s flight, the team gets ready to store it.

According to Edwards, the drone alone may cost upwards of $40,000 when you factor in the price of the camera, the fire starter, and the drone. He claims that it is worthwhile when weighing that one-time expense against the benefits it provides in terms of keeping people safe.

We’re using infrared to search for areas around here, Edwards explains. “Those guys who are meant to be out here searching the underbrush for hot spots twist their knee, break their leg, or damage their back, and they are forced to leave. It can result in permanent harm.

These drones are likely to become commonplace among the equipment used by firefighters to combat wildfires. The crew gets ready to leave for the northern perimeter of the fire, where another supervisor has asked for their assistance, as the drone lands safely.

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