National Park Service plans to use a drone to ignite a prescribed fire

Homestead National Monument expects to ignite a prescribed fire using an unmanned aerial system, or drone.

Univ of Nebraska fire drone

Above: University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers Dirac Twidwell, left, Sebastian Elbaum, and Carrick Detweiler with their unmanned aerial system for supporting prescribed burns. Elbaum and Detweiler are professor and assistant professor of computer science and engineering, respectively. Twidwell is an assistant professor and rangeland ecologist in UNL’s School of Natural Resources. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communications.

(UPDATE: the test was done on April 22, 2016. Wildfire Today has the details.)

(This article first appeared on

The prescribed fire at Homestead National Monument four miles west of Beatrice, Nebraska will include a live test of a University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS). The UNL system is a greatly scaled down version of a manned helicopter aerial ignition device. A multidisciplinary team of UNL experts in micro-UAS technology, fire ecology, conservation and public policy is developing this unmanned aerial system for supporting prescribed and wildland fire operations. We first wrote about their fire-igniting drone at Fire Aviation in October, 2015.

The park has received all of the approvals necessary to use the drone on this project, including the NPS Regional Office, their Washington office, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Jim Traub, National Park Service (NPS) Unmanned Aircraft System Specialist, said:

UAS’s in firefighting have the potential to reduce direct risk to firefighters doing ignition work while reducing costs and making an aerial resource more widely accessible to wildland firefighting efforts. The National Park Service is pleased to facilitate this unique and innovative opportunity with UNL, for this test of a sUAS in a fire situation.

Homestead National Monument of America, the NPS Midwest Region Fire and Aviation Program, and the NPS National Aviation Offices are collaborating with UNL’s Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems (NIMBUS) Laboratory and the Department of Interior Office of Aviation Services (OAS) for this operational test and evaluation of the integration of sUAS into wildland fire operations. The goal with the Homestead Prescribed Fire is to conduct a live test of the sUAS consistent with the intent of 2015 UAS Technology Overview approved by then NPS Associate Director of Visitor Resource Protection, Cam Sholly; Department of Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary, Kim Thorsen; and Office of Aviation Services, Director Mark Bathrick.

Their system uses the same principle for the ignition source as the much larger devices used in full sized helicopters — plastic sphere dispensers. The spheres look like ping pong balls, but they are manufactured with a chemical inside. When the dispenser injects a second chemical into the ball it creates an exothermic reaction causing it to burst into flame about half a minute later after it has been ejected from the machine.  When the helicopter, manned or unmanned, drops the spheres, they can ignite any receptive fuels on the ground about 25 to 40 seconds later.

Now that Homestead National Monument has all of the plans and approvals in hand, they are just waiting for a weather window that meets the criteria in their prescribed fire plan. They hope to get it done before May 15 of this year.

I asked the park Superintendent, Mark Engler, if he was worried that the drone might drop a sphere outside the prepared control lines:

No, I know we have to be alert that that could happen, but we have already put in a fireline, and we made it extra wide this time. We took an extra step and actually removed the cut grass [from the line after it was mowed]. We think the risk here is very low. And because the risk is so low, we feel that this is an appropriate place to conduct this test.

The park has been using fire for years to help maintain and restore their tall grass prairie. They have identified a 26-acre unit for this particular project. Homestead first started using prescribed fire in the 1980s. Mr. Engler said they have the “oldest restored prairie in the National Park Service”.

The plans call for 15 people to be actively involved in the burn, plus the crew operating the unmanned aerial system.

SEATs in Nebraska and South Dakota to start later than normal due to green conditions

Wind Cave National Park
The High Bridge over Beaver Creek in Wind Cave National Park, June 13, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) in South Dakota and Nebraska will have later starting dates than usual due to the abundance of moisture and very green herbaceous vegetation, as you can see by this photo taken in Wind Cave National Park a week ago.

For the last year or two South Dakota has brought on a contract SEAT July 1 but Jim Strain, the Chief Fire Management Officer for South Dakota’s Division of Wildland Fire, told us that it will start sometime after that, depending on how quickly things dry out. In 2012 they had a SEAT working out of Hot Springs in March. But, he said, this year it will definitely be on board before the start of the Sturgis motorcycle rally the first week of August. That event brings HUGE numbers of visitors to the Black Hills, and this year’s gathering is expected be larger than normal, since it is the 75th annual rally.

The Nebraska SEAT usually is based at Chadron, but the runway at the airport is being resurfaced this summer, so this year it will be either at Alliance or Valentine starting July 15.

SEAT hot springs
Tanker 466, a Dromader, at Hot Springs, South Dakota, March 14, 2012, operated by New Frontier Aviation. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

New SEAT base at Chadron, Nebraska

SEAT base dedication at Chadron
SEAT base dedication at Chadron, NE. South Dakota Wildland Fire Div photo.

A new base for Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) was dedicated at the Chadron Municipal Airport in Nebraska on Saturday, April 16. Thanks to the Nebraska legislature’s passage in 2013 of the Wildfire Control Act, three SEAT bases are now available in the northwest part of the state. Last year a contracted SEAT came on duty July 15. Other bases managed by the Nebraska Forest Service (NFS) are at Valentine (see photo below), and Alliance. A fourth base is scheduled for construction at North Platte Regional Airport later this year.


SEAT base in Valentine Nebraska. Nebraska Forest Service photo.
SEAT base in Valentine. Nebraska Forest Service photo.

SEAT base at Valentine

SEAT base in Valentine Nebraska
SEAT base in Valentine, Nebraska.

The new reload base for Single Engine Air Tankers in Valentine, Nebraska is nearing completion. Thanks to the Nebraska legislature’s passage this year of the Wildfire Control Act, a single-engine airtanker (SEAT) and three airtanker bases are now available in the northwest part of the state. The contracted SEAT came on duty July 15 and SEAT bases will be managed by the Nebraska Forest Service (NFS) at Valentine, Chadron, and Alliance.

Colorado creates Firefighting Air Corps

On Wednesday Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill, Senate Bill 245, that created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps. The Corps is organized within the Department of Public Safety in the Division of Fire Prevention and Control. There was no money associated with the passage of the bill, so until funds are appropriated, it will apparently exist in name only.

If the state does come up with some funding, according to the legislation:

The Division may purchase, acquire, lease, or contract for the provision of firefighting aircraft, facilities, equipment, and supplies for aerial firefighting; and retrofit, maintain, staff, operate, and support the firefighting aircraft or contract for the provision of those services.

In a related story, on Monday, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman signed into law LB 634, the Wildfire Control Act of 2013 which authorizes the state to contract for one Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT).

You may remember that one of the sponsors of the Colorado bill, State Senator Steve King, had an idea to help defray some of the costs of the program:

Can you imagine what advertising value would be if you had a Colorado Rockies sign on the tail of slurry bomber?

So we sponsored a competition for designs showing potential advertising and asked our readers to vote on their preferred choice. The one below by Jerome Laval is the leader in the poll, which is still open.

Jerome Laval P3



Thanks go out to Bean