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Drones won’t be used to fight fires

But interest remains in utilizing unmanned aircraft

SEATTLE – As the dry weather sets in and the wildfire season beckons, Washington state won’t have an aerial drone to help combat the expected blazes.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Natural Resources considered obtaining an unmanned aircraft to test during this year’s wildfire season, even discussing the possibility with the Federal Aviation Administration, which has to give approval to launch a drone.

Those plans won’t materialize this summer, but the agency’s interest in using drones remains.

“We’d consider any technology that allows us to more safely suppress wildfire season,” spokesman Matthew Randazzo said. “During wildfires, flying unmanned aircraft for information-gathering purposes is potentially safer and cheaper than manned aircraft, and they may be able to provide more timely and in-depth data to our firefighters on the ground.”

DNR would have been one of the first non-law-enforcement agencies in the state to purchase and operate a drone.

As drones continue to enter domestic airspace, their potential uses have begun to take shape, including helping during wildfire season in the country’s often-scorched West.

Since at least 2006, drones owned and operated by federal agencies have been used and tested to aid in combating wildfires. That year in a test with NASA, a drone was used to seek out hot spots over a fire in California. In 2011, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection drone assisted fighting Arizona’s largest wildfire on record.

The FAA approves use of drones on wildfire suppression on a case-by-case basis. To agencies in charge of helping suppress fires, that presents a challenge.

“It can be and would be a challenge, but it wouldn’t be insurmountable,” said Bob Roth, aviation management specialist for the U.S. Forest Service.

But they are not without controversy. Privacy advocates and those worried about government intrusion have often looked at drones with wary eyes.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn scrapped the police department’s drone program before it began after public outrage earlier this year. A measure that would have regulated the purchase and use of drones by state agencies and local municipalities, which DNR testified against, attracted bipartisan support and lively debate earlier this year before failing to get a vote.

For wildfires, drones can be used to fly in conditions that would put human pilots at risk, such as smoky conditions. Also, some models of drones can fly for hours longer than the fuel or pilot fatigue allows manned aircraft to fly.

“There’s lots of potential in how they could be used, wildfire being one of them. I think the challenge is to define the proper niche. And make sure it meets a mission and a business requirement, and it’s cost-effective,” Randazzo said.