With a nasty wildfire season at hand, Washington can now send in backup without further endangering firefighting crews on the ground.
The Federal Aviation Administration approved the state to operate unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, to monitor urgent and threatening wildfires. Drones can send back video to fire officials of terrain and fire conditions, such as the location of hot spots.
“It’s truly all about looking at the fire,” said Mary Verner, Spokane’s former mayor who’s now a deputy supervisor at the state Department of Natural Resources, in a phone conference Wednesday. Video from the drones will help managers decide where to send firefighters and manned air resources, she said.
The FAA approval came as Washington declared a state of emergency in 20 eastern counties. That declaration allows the state to mobilize the National Guard and additional state resources, if necessary, to battle future wildfires. The National Guard announced Wednesday it’s sending two helicopters and 14 personnel to a fire in the Methow Valley.
More than 1,000 firefighters continue to battle the state’s largest blaze in Mills Canyon, near the town of Entiat, that has burned 22,000 acres of the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Verner said the agency decided not to use a drone in that fire.
Earlier this month, DNR announced a burn ban through Sept. 30 for all its lands east of the Cascades, reporting 172 wildfire starts have burned about 779 acres of land as of the end of June.
This week alone, officials said, the agency has seen more than a hundred fire starts.
Drones can go where manned aircraft typically used in wildfires can’t, Verner said. Helicopters and airplanes, regularly used by DNR to fight fires, sometimes can’t fly in the heavy wind and smoke.
Verner stressed the limits of the FAA approval, which allows for one drone to be used by the state for firefighting purposes only. The FAA requires advance notice and approval of each use, and the airspace must be clear of any other aircraft before launching the drone. The airspace would be “only what we need around the immediate vicinity of the fire,” she said.
If warranted, the agency would use the “ScanEagle” drone model, which is built by Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary headquartered in Bingen, Washington. The model is about 4 feet long with a 10-foot wingspan and can reach maximum horizontal speeds of 80 knots, or about 92 miles per hour, according to the company.
Company representatives would drive the aircraft up to the scene of the fire and fly it at the command of the fire crews, said DNR spokeswoman Janet Pearce.
Boeing is supplying the drone free-of-charge to the state, Pearce said, and any commitment to purchase drones is far away.
“At least we have the opportunity to use them if we need to,” she said.
Earlier this year, the state legislature granted approval for DNR to use drones specifically for wildfire monitoring and suppression. The Obama administration has faced criticism for using the unmanned aircraft in military strikes in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Use of drones domestically has also been criticized by privacy groups concerned about government intrusion.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in April vetoed legislation that would have regulated the use of drones and banned state agencies from using them for 15 months. Inslee formed a task force, which met June 30 for the first time, to determine better regulations.
But the governor said exceptions could be made for emergency situations, such as wildfires, and the ban did not apply to independently elected officials, such as the Commissioner of Public Lands, which oversees DNR. Verner said other states, such as Alaska, North Dakota, Oregon and California, have used drones to successfully aid firefighters.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell told Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in a Congressional hearing on Wednesday that drones are “a tool we need to begin using.” The Forest Service used a drone in the Rim fire in California last year. He said he is working with the FAA to “find the right way to move forward.”
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