‘Like the Chain Saw’: Drones Have Become a Lifesaving Tool for Fighting Wildfires

MIAMI, Ariz. – The whir of aerial drones provided a distinct soundtrack to the month it took to contain the Woodbury Fire, which ranks as the fifth-largest wildfire in Arizona history.

The fire burned nearly 124,000 acres of the Superstition Wilderness and the Tonto National Monument, difficult terrain that made putting firefighters on the ground a dangerous move.

“Our main value is firefighter safety and public safety,” said Dick Fleishman, a fire information officer for the Coconino National Forest. “We’re not going to put people in this ground where we can barely get them in and out of there.”

That leaves the creation of situational awareness, scale-mapping and infrared imagery to unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones.

Chris Mariano takes a Matrice 600 drone for a test flight in June. Last year, the Bureau of Land Management had 531 drones and 359 operators in its service. (Photo by Anton L. Delgado/News21)

In the past eight years, the number of federal drone flights has grown to 10,342 in 2018 from 260 in 2010, according to the Department of Interior. In Arizona, drone usage has increased by 184% in the past two years.

Justin Baxter, a drone fire operations specialist, and his three-man team flew a Matrice 600 (M600) during the Woodbury Fire, which broke out June 8 about 5 miles northwest of Superior. The blaze is 100% contained, fire officials said this week, but it continues to burn and certain roads and campgrounds remain closed.

“We’ve been doing a lot on this fire with infrared work just based on how rugged the terrain is,” Baxter said.

Many of his team’s missions involved assessing scorched land. The drone’s infrared and normal cameras allow operators to compare surface temperature as they search for hotspots, which can ignite new fires.

Drones can’t put out fires, but they can start backburns by dropping plastic balls filled with flammable liquids. (Photo by Anton L. Delgado/News21)

“The drones are not putting out the fires,” Baxter said. “Somebody still needs to go in there and put it out. But we can mitigate some of the risk, some of the exposure and identify areas of concern a little bit sooner.”

Although the drones can’t put out fires, they can start them. Attachable infrared cameras and plastic-sphere dispensers equip drones to ignite and monitor backburns, a firefighting tactic used to reduce flammable materials that could fuel an oncoming wildfire.

The dispensers drop what Baxter calls “pingpong balls” filled with two chemicals that combine to set off small fires. The drones then monitor these fires as they burn brush, letting firefighters focus on other mitigation and suppression techniques during an active wildfire.

“Drones are a new technology that we’re trying to implement,” said Ryan Berlin, a mitigation and education specialist who was flown in from Idaho for the Woodbury Fire. “We’re still in the infancy of the drones.”

As of 2018, the Bureau of Land Management had 531 drones and 359 operators in its service and provided support during earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, animal migrations and search and rescues.

According to the Department of Interior’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Program 2018 Use Report, the 10,342 flights in 2018 totaled 1,785 hours in air, a more than 100% increase in both flights and hours in air from 2017. These flights occurred in 42 states and at least two territories, with more than half of them in Hawaii, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado and Idaho.

Arizona had the eighth-highest number of drone flights in 2018, with 570. Although statistics for 2019 won’t be available until the end of the year, drone usage in Arizona is likely to have increased, as this fire season already has burned more land than in all of 2018, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center.

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At the end of 2018, President Donald Trump signed an executive order promoting Interior’s search for new wildfire management, mitigation and suppression techniques. One of the provisions called for agencies to “maximize appropriate use of unmanned aerial systems” – drones, or UAS – in wildfire fighting and recovery.

With support from the White House and data showing increasing interest in federal drone usage, Baxter looks forward to seeing the program grow.

“I hope that this tool is just like the chain saw. You’re going to have the EMT that carries a first aid kit. The sawyer that carries the chain saw and the UAS pilot that carries the UAS,” Baxter said. “Instead of exposing a helicopter pilot to a recon flight or a captain of a crew to hike a ridge nobody’s ever been up, give them give them the tools to make their job just a little bit safer.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Intense Drought Blamed for California Forest Die-Off, Climate Change Could Make it Worse

LOS ANGELES – Thanks to our ultra long-rainy season, we finally said goodbye to drought conditions in California. But the reality is we’re still living with the aftermath of one of the worst droughts on record, possibly the worst in 1,200 years.

Just look to the Sierra Nevada where more than 110 million trees have died since 2010, with the biggest spike in deaths came right after the hottest and driest years of drought.

New research published in Nature Geoscience says that the spike isn’t a coincidence. That years of extreme conditions can be directly tied to a 55% increase in the number of tree deaths.

Driest Four Years in a Century

2012 to 2015 were the four driest in a century, with each year hotter than the last.

“During these extreme dry periods, trees basically run out of water,” said Roger Bales, professor of Engineering at UC Merced and co-author on the paper.

  • First, the earth around the deep roots of trees dried out. These roots can 30 to 50 feet deep, which typically helps trees to survive drought conditions.
  • Then, because they were stressed, the size of their canopies – the green foliage above – shrank and their ability to fight off pathogens suffered.
  • Then, the trees started to die.

Pines, which have also been hit hard by bark beetles, suffered the most. Though mature conifers like white fir and incense-cedar, perished as well.

This June 6, 2016 photo shows a tree stained blue by a fungus carried by the bark beetle, which diminishes the trees value as lumber, near Cressman, Calif. (AP Photo/Scott Smith)

The pattern of death was particularly present in the Southern and Central Sierra, where it started at lower altitudes and crept upwards to the usual cooler and wetter locations on the mountains.

It’s true that tree mortality and drought aren’t new in California, but according to the authors, compared to the 1987-1992 drought, while this most recent one saw about the same amount of precipitation it was 2.16 degrees Fahrenheit hotter, which meant that the trees had to use more water.

Scary Implications

As the climate crisis progresses, rainfall patterns are expected to become more extreme and temperatures are going to increase.

A greater number of dead trees means more wildfires, decreased air quality, and a loss of habitat for insects and animals.

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The authors also found that extreme conditions limited how much CO2 the remaining trees were able process, or uptake. While uptake usually occurs nearly year round, when the trees were stressed out uptake was largely limited to the spring and winter wet seasons.

The future of California’s forests in an ever-changing climate is uncertain, though the authors postulate that they could use the new data to predict how much water trees across the Sierras will need to survive droughts in the future.

Bales explained that forest managers could decide to reduce the number of trees in the forest depending on the area and the weather conditions.

“When you have fewer trees drawing water out of the ground then there’s enough to go around,” he said. “We need to manage the forest like we would agriculture or other systems that are water limited, and not have as many trees there.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Logging by Copter: Millions Spent to Thin Forest on Steep Slopes of Mount Elden

FLAGSTAFF – On Mount Elden’s tightly wound switchbacks, small pines densely line the edge of the cliff just off the dirt road. Many are marked with brilliant orange spray paint, signaling a boundary that tells loggers where to remove trees.

The mountain’s steep slopes and the crowded forest makes getting trees off Elden a challenge, so R&R Conner Helicopters project manager Dave Webb and his crew of 16 take the pines out by air.

Loggers aren’t removing any mature pines on Mount Elden, making it more difficult to find a buyer for the smaller trees being cut down. Most companies will only buy trees with large diameters, says George Jozens of the Coconino National Forest. (Photo by Delia Johnson/Cronkite News)

A constant whoosh from the chopper’s blades echoes against the mountainside as Webb’s crew flies back and forth, grabbing trees and dropping them at a landing area where the felled trees are trimmed and stacked.

“This is what happens every day,” Webb said.

With the threat of wildfires expected to be higher than normal this fire season, Flagstaff is trying to reduce the threat by logging with a helicopter. This work is expected to be finished by mid-May.

It’s an expensive undertaking. Flagstaff residents in 2012 voted to tax themselves to raise the funds, compiling $10 million dedicated expressly to reducing the risk of wildfires near the city.

The thinning project is funded by that tax money, along with $3 million the U.S. Forest Service invested in the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, which includes Mount Elden, just east of the city.

“Per hour, it’s thousands of dollars,” Webb said. “So we have to keep things moving. … The helicopter goes back and forth probably 250 times a day like this … and it varies from one to 10 trees at a time.”

Since January, weather permitting, the helicopter has flown every workday, removing thousands of pines that were growing too closely together and creating greater fire risks.

“A lot of times, people’s vision of a forest is a really dense stand of trees, which actually in this area is not true natural conditions for the forest,” said Matt McGrath, the district ranger for the Forest Service’s Flagstaff Ranger District.

When trees grow as densely as they have on Mount Elden, wildfires can spread quickly because the flames easily jump from trunk to trunk. And once a fire occurs, the impacts extend beyond the land that burned.

Beyond preventing catastrophic damage, the thinning will make the forest healthier by allowing trees to grow to their natural sizes, says Matt McGrath (yellow hardhat), the district ranger for the Forest Service’s Flagstaff Ranger District. “A lot of times, people’s vision of a forest is a really dense stand of trees, which actually in this area is not true natural conditions for the forest.” (Photo by Delia Johnson/Cronkite News)
Flagstaff’s watershed provides drinking water to the city. But after a wildfire, runoff in the watershed picks up residual ash and debris, making it unusable.

Wildfires also damage the soil so drastically that it no longer can absorb water, McGrath said, which creates the potential for severe flooding in Flagstaff.

Beyond preventing catastrophic damage, the thinning will make the forest healthier by allowing trees to grow to their natural sizes, McGrath said.

George Jozens, a spokesman for the Coconino National Forest, said loggers are not cutting down any mature pines, which makes it harder to get rid of the thousands of smaller trunks piled in the landing area, waiting to be trucked the rest of the way down the mountain. Jozens said the plan is to sell the lumber, but most companies will only buy trees of larger diameters. He said there’s no set plan for the piles, but they likely will be sold for fire fuel.

The trees being cut and sold this year are the second phase of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project. The first phase, completed in 2018, involved removing trees from the base of Mount Elden through traditional logging and prescribed burns.

More than 9,000 acres of city and federal land has been thinned since the start of the project in 2012. The final phase will focus on thinning the forests on Mormon Mountain, about an hour south of Flagstaff.

“This area of the forest, it took a lot of years for it to get as overgrown as it is,” McGrath said. “So we’re doing a lot of work to undo a lot of years of overgrowth.”

-Video by Nicole Hernandez/Cronkite News