Firefighting aircraft on the Green Top Mountain Fire

Tim Crippin sent us these photos he took on the Green Top Mountain Fire on July 15th near Eagle Point, Oregon about 15 miles northeast of Medford. Started July 15 by lightning, it had burned about 120 acres by July 16.

Thanks Tim!

air tanker Green Top Mountain Fire helicopter Green Top Mountain Fire air tanker Green Top Mountain Fire

helicopter Green Top Mountain Fire

The first drops from the 737 air tanker

Above: One of the first test drops by a 737 air tanker, Coulson’s T-137. Photo by Jeremy Ulloa.

On July 13 the 737 that Coulson Aviation has been converting into an air tanker made its first drops. In this case it was a series of water drops by Tanker 137 while flying out of San Bernardino, California.

Britt Coulson said, “The 4,000 USG RADS-XXL/2 performed perfectly as did the airplane. Our flight crew couldn’t have been happier with the handling characteristics and our split tank worked as designed with no CG shift during the drop.”

Next week they will finish flight testing with the FAA, and will soon begin static tests of the tank system. They are working with the Forest Service to schedule the grid test.

Mr. Coulson expects Tanker 137 will be ready to fight fire in August.

air tanker 137 737 fire
T-137. Photo by Jeremy Ulloa.
air tanker 137 737 fire
One of the first test drops by a 737 air tanker, Coulson’s T-137. Photo by Britt Coulson..

Another drone ignites wildfire in Oregon

Above: Photo by Fire Marshall Jeffrey Pricher

We just found out about another drone that started a wildfire in Oregon. This time time it happened in Scappoose about 25 miles northwest of Portland. According to a press release from the Scappoose Fire District, the drone crashed June 26 in FAA restricted airspace near Scappoose Industrial Airpark. It landed in dry grass and sparked a fire.

After trying unsuccessfully to stomp the fire out, the operators called 911. It burned about a quarter acre before firefighters put it out.

The operators were issued a verbal warning for using the aircraft in restricted airspace. FAA regulations require recreational drone operators to give notice for flights within five miles of an airport to both the airport operator and air traffic control tower, if the airport has a tower. However, recreational operations are not permitted in Class B airspace around most major airports without specific air traffic permission and coordination.

drone starts wildfire Oregon
Photo by Fire Marshall Jeffrey Pricher

The Fire Marshall for the Fire District, Jeffrey Pricher, told us that as the drone was flying, a malfunction occurred. The aircraft went out of control and crashed. As for the exact cause of the ignition of the fire, he said that after an initial examination the battery looked intact. So he is considering something related to one of the electric motors, but the investigation is still ongoing. Normally they operate at about 100 degrees, he said, but if there was an anomaly or an object was impinging on one of the moving parts, friction could cause an elevated temperature and failure of the motor.

Mr. Pricher said this was a racing drone, which normally do not have legs, landing gear, or anything that would keep the motors elevated off the ground more than a fraction of an inch when it lands upright. If it did have an overheated motor, landing (or crashing) in a grassy field could put the motor in close contact with flammable vegetation.

On July 12 KEZI reported on a drone battery that caused a small fire in a residence a couple of months ago in Eugene, Oregon. The owner of a Propel X-5 drone had just charged the battery for 15 minutes:

[Tina] Thomas said they unplugged the battery and then noticed it was smoking. That’s when the trouble began.

“Then it just shot out. I mean it was like a missile,” Thomas said.

She said the battery shot right into the carpet and lit it on fire, and then the charger port shot into the dog bed and lit that on fire.

They put out the fire but had to replace the carpet. And thankfully, the dog was not in its bed at the time.

On July 10 a racing drone crashed when a dog jumped on the person flying it near Springfield, causing him to drop the controller. The small aircraft spun out of control, crashed, and as the video kept recording, started grass on fire within three seconds. It burned about two acres before firefighters put it out.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Paul and Kelly.
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CWN drone used to map Martin Fire

Above: File photo of a Silent Falcon drone poised for launch. Image credit: Silent Falcon UAS Technologies.

(Originally published at 6:48 p.m. MDT July 13, 2018)

The Department of the Interior continues to aggressively move toward the use of drones to provide information for land managers. The agency is purchasing dozens of them and recently issued Call When Needed (CWN) contracts for contractor operated and maintained drones to be used on fires.

On July 11 the Bureau of Land Management activated one of the new CWN drones to map the HUGE Martin Fire that has burned 435,000 acres in Northern Nevada. The company that got the call was Bridger Aerospace, an outfit that also had nine Aero Commanders under contract for Type 1 Air Attack services, used as a platform for coordinating airborne firefighting aircraft. Drones, for Bridger, is a new field, and they have partnered with Silent Falcon UAS Technologies for the use of their Silent Falcon drone.

Martin Fire progression map
July 7 was a big day on the Martin Fire.

During its first day on the fire, today, July 13, it has conducted four sorties for a total of 5.6 hours, according to Gill Dustin, the Unmanned Aerial Systems Manager for the BLM. The aircraft is being used to map unburned islands inside the perimeter, look for remaining heat on the fire and outside the fireline, and identify structures and other infrastructure to determine if they have been damaged or not. The company brought four aircraft to the fire, but so far are only using one at a time.

IR photo Martin Fire drone
Infrared photo taken by Silent Falcon UAS with Ascent Vision CM-100 Gimbal. Credit: Bridger Aerospace.
aerial photo Martin fire drone
Screen capture with incident map on the left. Camera keystone (field of view) is the red cone on the right side of the aircraft. Credit (Bridger Aerospace). Camera view is on the right.

The BLM has secured from the FAA an Emergency Course of Action (ECOA) to enable the aircraft to operate within the Temporary Flight Restriction. Kurt Friedemann, Vice President of Bridger Aerospace, said that on the Martin Fire it has been flying at 8,000 feet, which in that area is about 3,000 feet above the ground.

The Silent Falcon is powered by an electric motor drawing its power from a battery. But there are also solar panels on the wings which can add a small amount of additional power to the battery while in flight. With the fuselage made of carbon fiber, it is quite light and energy efficient. Mr. Friedemann said that occasionally the aircraft can take advantage of thermals, like a glider, to extend the amount of time it can loiter over a target. Normally they expect to get at least 5 hours of flight time out of the aircraft. It is launched on a spring-loaded catapult, and has no landing gear. It lands via parachute — upside down to protect the payload. The entire system can be transported in a pickup truck.

Silent Falcon drone
File photo of a Silent Falcon drone. Image credit: Silent Falcon UAS Technologies

The payload can be changed to meet the needs of the end user, but for this mission it has electro-optical and infrared sensors.

On the Martin fire, which is almost 60 miles long east to west, the Silent Falcon is operating out of line of sight, which puts it into a different certification category than your typical consumer drone.

To integrate the drone into the management of the incident there are two critical positions that are filled by the incident —  an Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Manager and a Data Specialist. The manager helps to integrate the system into the Incident Management Team structure.  A drone, especially while live-streaming video, can generate a crap-ton of data. Managing that can be problematic if it’s not figured out in advance and carefully curated as it is collected.

Mr. Friedemann said that just 10 days ago they completed 7 days of training for personnel and carding for the aircraft in West Wendover, Nevada. And now they have their flight crew spiked out miles from the Incident Command Post in one of the most sparsely populated areas of the United States.

Colorado beta testing drone system that would enhance firefighters’ situational awareness

(Originally published at Wildfire Today)

The state of Colorado is working on a system that would use drones to provide live video of wildfires to wildland firefighters’ cell phones. The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting is beta testing a DVI Mavic drone that would push the real time video to firefighters using software developed by the military, Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK).

The program has the capability of displaying data from tracking devices carried by soldiers, or firefighters, and identifying their location on a map, which in this case could also show the fire in real time.

If they are successful in developing and implementing a system that can provide to fire managers real time information about the location of a wildfire AND firefighting resources, it would achieve what we call the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety — knowing those two elements of information.

The DJI Mavic can only stay in the air for 20 to 30 minutes before having to return to base to replace the battery. So this beta test is probably only a proof of concept attempt, perhaps leading to a more robust drone, rotor or fixed wing, that could stay in the air for a much longer period of time.

PIlatus PC12 Colorado
One of the two State of Colorado’s Pilatus PC12’s, was photographed in March of 2016 in Sacramento.

Colorado already has the ability to transmit near real time imagery of fires from their two MultiMission Aircraft, Pilatus PC12’s. They are integrated with the Colorado Wildfire Information System, a geospatial database that displays incident images and details to local fire managers through a web based application.

In Oregon, drone crashes, starts wildfire

Above: The burned drone. Photo by Cameron Austin-Connolly

(Originally published on Wildfire Today July 11, 2018)

A small drone started a vegetation fire when it crashed near Springfield, Oregon this week. On July 10 Cameron Austin-Connolly was flying his drone over a field when a large unleashed dog left its owner, ran and jumped on him. The impact knocked the controller out of his hands and the drone immediately went out of control and crashed. As you can see in the video (that Mr. Austin-Connolly gave us permission to use) within about three seconds the still operating camera recorded flames.

You can also see two dogs running at Mr. Austin-Connolly.

He wrote on his Facebook page:

My drone crashes and when I go to look for it I saw smoke and flames so I called 911. Springfield FD quickly showed up and put out the flames. They even returned my drone and gopro. The Fire Marshall said that was their first drone fire.

In case you’re wondering about the reaction of the dogs’ owner, Mr. Austin-Connolly said he just kept walking and didn’t say anything.

Mr. Austin-Connolly told us, “it is a hand built first person view drone, or FPV done. Some people also call them racing drones since they are fast.”

He said it was using a lithium polymer, or “lipo”, battery.

Most small consumer-sized drones use lithium ion batteries, while racing drones generally operate with lithium polymer batteries.

The battery that was in the drone. The label says: “Infinity, 1300 MAH, race spec”. Photo by Cameron Austin-Connolly

In March we wrote about the crash of a drone that started a 335-acre fire on the Coconino National Forest in Northern Arizona. Few details about that drone were available, except that it was about 16″ x 16″.  The comments by our readers developed a great deal of information about rechargeable batteries and the possibility of them catching fire. We also learned about several other drone crashes that started fires.

In May we published an article about the fact that electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries present a complex and hazardous situation for firefighters responding to a vehicle accident.

The fact is, there are many examples of both lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries catching fire. There is no doubt that when a lithium ion battery is subject to an impact, a short circuit can occur in one or more of the cells, creating heat which may ignite the chemicals inside the battery. This can spread to the adjoining cells and lead to the condition known as “thermal runaway” in which the fire escalates. If as in a vehicle, there are thousands of batteries, it can be extremely difficult to extinguish the blaze. And worse, it can reignite days or weeks later.

When compact fluorescent light bulbs were introduced they saved energy but were slow to get fully bright and many people thought the color of the light was unpleasant. I knew then that it was immature lighting technology. There were going to be better options. Now LED bulbs save even more energy, come in various light temperatures (colors), and illuminate at near full brightness immediately. For now, they are expensive, but will still pay for themselves in three to five years.

Lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries are the fluorescent bulbs of battery technology. They are too heavy, don’t hold enough power, and they too often catch fire. No one wants to be on an airplane when flames erupt from an e-cigarette, cell phone, wireless headphones, or laptop computer, all of which can ignite even when turned off.

So until that next major step in battery technology occurs, what do we do about drones? Is the risk so low that we should not be concerned? When land managers enact fire restrictions during periods of high wildfire danger, do we also prohibit the use of drones? Should drones ever be allowed over vegetation in a fire-prone environment during wildfire season? And what about the hundreds of drones owned and operated by the Department of the Interior that flew 5,000 missions last year? Not all are battery operated, but some are.

We thank Mr. Austin-Connolly for providing the information, photos, and the video. When we asked, he said, “If my experience can be helpful I’m all for it.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Firefighters on the Martin Fire say they have an innovative way to use air tankers

The Martin Fire has burned 425,000 acres in Northern Nevada

(Originally published on Wildfire Today)

When a wildfire reaches 100,000 acres we often refer to it as a “megafire”. But what name do we put on a fire when it is four times the megafire threshold? The incident management team on the Martin Fire in Northern Nevada estimates their fire has burned approximately 425,000 acres. (I think we should reserve “gigafire” for a 1 million-acre fire.)

According to the National Situation Report there are only 634 personnel assigned. That is extremely low density of firefighters for such a huge fire — it stretches for 56 miles, west to east. Let’s assume for a moment that the perimeter is 150 miles (it is probably more). If so, that is about three people per mile of fireline, not including support personnel. However with mostly light fuels, there is less mop up after the spread is stopped, requiring fewer personnel.

map martin fire
The perimeter of the Martin Fire at 8:49 p.m. MDT July 10, 2018. The yellow line was from the previous day.

With the long distances, limited numbers of firefighters, and what may be difficult access, firefighters on the Martin Fire say they have developed an innovative approach to containing the blaze.

Firefighters know that air tankers and helicopters dropping water or retardant do not put out fires. Under ideal conditions they can slow them down enough to allow ground-based firefighters the opportunity to move in and actually put out the fire in that area. If there is no ground support working with the aircraft, the chances of success are very low. Reading between the lines of an update about the fire (embedded farther down) it appears that firefighters realized that in some instances the fire was spreading beyond retardant drops. It is not clear if the fire burned through the retardant, spotted over, or burned around the retardant.

martin fire retardant lines
Photo uploaded to InciWeb July 8, titled: “Martin Fire Crossing Retardant Lines”.

The tactic they decided to deploy involved using a combination of water-scooping air tankers, retardant-dropping air tankers, and firefighters building line on the ground. Aircraft that drop water, helicopters or fixed wing, apply it directly to the flaming front, since dropping it out ahead of the fire is often not effective since it does not adhere to the vegetation or have a long-term effect like retardant.

Here is how they described what they did:

Crews and equipment are making excellent progress building containment lines along the southeast flank of the fire. Due to the heavy, fine fuel loads, high winds and extremely fast fire rates of spread, an innovative tactic has been developed to combat these conditions using a three-prong attack. First, a long line of water is laid down by super scoopers, immediately followed by a retardant drop from air tankers. The approaching fire is thus cooled sufficiently that dozers and crews can safely and immediately dig a containment line right up against the side of the retardant line facing away from the flame front. Very close timing and coordination of air drops of water and retardant with ground forces has been proven to be the most effective tactic in these volatile burning conditions.

The part that may be innovative is slowing the flaming front with scooping air tankers AND then putting retardant just outside the edge of the fire. And as usual, quick followup by ground forces is essential.

Here are links to videos shot on the Martin Fire of drops by a DC-10 and two water scoopers.

Is it interesting that these firefighters, like many others in Canada and Europe, know that water-scooping air tankers are a very important tool in the toolbox. However, this year the U.S. Forest Service decided not to have any of them on exclusive use contract. The ones being used thankfully were available on a Call When Needed contract. And the number of retardant-dropping large air tankers on EU contracts were cut by one-third over last year.

They are also having success on the Martin Fire using a local task force:

Yesterday, fire spread slowed significantly due to the hard work of the local Elko Task Force that hit the head of the fire early Sunday morning and throughout the day. The task force took advantage of the fire naturally slowing as it entered flatter terrain with lesser fuel loads. Operations personnel report that the fire is moving into patches of greener vegetation such as Siberian wheat grass, which was planted as part of the BLM’s rehabilitation and fuel treatment efforts on previous fires. Green fuels slow the fire’s advance, making it easier for bulldozers and engines, with the aggressive assistance of super scooper air tankers and heavy and light helicopters, to catch up and get containment lines in place.

The head of the fire on the east side has approached and so far has not crossed the major drainage in the 3-D map below, thanks, no doubt, to the points brought out in the preceding quote.

map martin fire
A 3-D map showing the perimeter on the east side of the Martin Fire at 8:49 p.m. MDT July 10, 2018. The yellow line was from the previous day.

The Martin Fire is bringing in Beth Lund’s Type 1 Great Basin Management Team to handle the east side, while Taiga Rohrer’s Type 2 Great Basin Incident Management Team will continue to take care of the west side.

747 SuperTanker activated on CAL FIRE CWN contract

In the file photo above, Air Tanker 944, a 747-400, drops near structures on the Palmer Fire south of Yucaipa, California at 4:25 p.m. PDT September 2, 2017. Photo by Leroy Leggitt, used with permission.

CAL FIRE activated the 747 SuperTanker today, July 7, on a Call When Needed  (CWN) contract after it was carded by the agency. The aircraft has been hung up in the annual recertification process this year due to a required software addition. The approval, or carding, is temporary, pending resolution of the data software issue which helps track systems on the air tanker. The issue is not related to the actual retardant delivery system.

In addition to the CWN contract with CAL FIRE, GlobalSupertanker also has contracts with the states of Colorado and Oregon.

As this is written at  6:50 p.m. PDT July 7, Tanker 944 had just received a launch order and is en route to the Klamathon Fire on the Oregon/California state line.