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.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

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.