Drones with infrared capability could help where thick smoke keeps manned helicopters from gathering fire information. They also could keep people out of risky situations, provide real-time information to firefighters on the ground and alert officials when conditions change or the fire jumps the line.
While drones have been used in rare cases already, managers with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service say the headlines are ahead of technology and the agencies' comfort zone and pocketbooks.
"I think you are going to see them sooner than you think," said Rusty Warbis, flight operations manager at the BLM's National Aviation Office. "Right now it is procedures, policy and regulation that's really holding it up."
What's more, Warbis said, the BLM isn't quite sure how to incorporate drones into an already busy wildfire airspace without creating a hazard. More complex is the task of taking the drone's information and communicating it in a way helpful to planners and tacticians, he said.
Last year, a California National Guard Predator drone was dispatched to aid firefighters battling the Rim Fire, which burned 257,314 acres in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite National Park.
The drone "proved particularly effective for perimeter and spot fire detection," says a report by Josh McDaniel of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. It was the first and most significant launch of a drone in wildfire history and "could point the way to how these assets are used on future fires."
"Fire managers on the Rim Fire say that the (drones) also have potential application in a wide range of missions related to communication crew, safety and night ops," McDaniel wrote.
The drone picked up a critical spot fire that could have spread into a populated area. It also had the technology to identify the precise latitude and longitude of such spot fires for an airdrop of water or retardant, he reported.
The drone could fly from one side of the fire to the other in about 15 minutes and could see more than two helicopters monitoring opposite ends of the blaze. It easily saw through light and dry smoke, but it was grounded when the Rim Fire experienced inversion, trapping smoke near the ground.
The drone was operated by a military crew completely unfamiliar with fire behavior, requiring a fire behavior specialist to gather and interpret the information.
Other drones have been used since, including one from the University of Alaska Fairbanks that flew a "Scan Eagle" into the Funny River Fire on the Kenai Peninsula in May.
Recently, Oregon's Department of Forestry — which has its own firefighters — approved one forester's idea of using a much smaller drone. The state plans to equip a small, remote-controlled helicopter with video, infrared cameras and GPS systems at a cost of about $5,000.
Firefighters hope to fly it into smoke-choked canyons when helicopters are unable, then share the information with firefighters and other agencies. In a decade, Warbis said, firefighters could be equipped with such small drones as regular field equipment.
The Oregon drone is only cleared to fly 400 feet above the ground and holds enough gas to run for 30 minutes. One Predator drone costs $17 million, can stay in the sky 20 hours and operates at 18,000 feet altitude.
The Forest Service has "dabbled" in using drones while a committee of specialists works on a report examining their use in all of the agency's programs, not only wildfire, said Mike Ferris, spokesman for the fire aviation management division.