Firefighters are using fireball-dropping drones to prevent worse wildfires

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Firefighters are using drones to battle wildfires.
Image: Drone Amplified

The West Coast is up in flames as wildfires continue to rage across states like California, Oregon, and Washington. Sadly, there aren’t many ways to stop the massive blazes once they begin. That forces firefighters to adopt unusual strategies to prevent wildfires from spreading and destroying more land.

One of those strategies involves purposefully setting smaller fires, known as backfires, to ensure that larger blazes don’t have enough fuel to keep spreading.

Now, National Geographic reports that firefighters are using drones to drop fireballs from the sky.

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High-Tech Fires

Most of the tech-based efforts to stop wildfires involve some sort of data analytics or predictive modeling. Although those approaches are crucial tools for firefighters, they don’t do anything for those working in the field. That’s where the drone approach comes in.

Each drone is packed with up to 450 ping pong ball-sized incendiary charges called “Dragon Eggs.” As they hit the ground, they explode and start small blazes. This clears the land of fuel in a way that keeps firefighters in control. If (or when) a wildfire reaches that area, it won’t be able to proceed any further.

Currently, there are about two dozen drones taking part in backfire missions across the West Coast. Approximately 30 drone pilots are behind the controls. In a matter of minutes, the drones can disperse the Dragon Eggs and then return for another round.

Simon Weibel, a firefighter and pilot for Drone Amplified, says, “A bonus is you can do nighttime ops and work in smoky conditions, because if a drone crashes, no one dies.”

Oftentimes, setting backfires takes place very close to where wildfires are burning. A slight shift of the winds or a delay in the process can put firefighters in serious danger. By using drones, that risk is practically eliminated.

Although the 30 drones operating around the West Coast this year is double the number that flew last year, experts say it still isn’t enough. Joe Suarez, a drone specialist from the National Park Service, says, “We’re getting a significant increase in requests this year. We don’t have the pilots or aircraft to meet the needs now.”

Due to the increased size and scope of this year’s West Coast fires, drones are more necessary than ever. As wildfire season continues to follow a disturbing upward trend of destruction, it may be wise to add more drones to the fleet as soon as possible.

More Tech

Fireball-dropping drones aren’t the only tech-based solution that firefighters are using to battle blazes. Others are utilizing thermal-imaging cameras that can see through smoke to track the movement of certain fires.

Of course, these approaches are complemented by traditional firefighting strategies like dumping water on the blazes from above. California’s newest aircraft, the Cal Fire Firehawk, drops 1,000 gallons of water with every pass. It can then refill at nearby reservoirs or lakes with a built-in snorkel before returning to douse the flames again.

Wildfires aren’t going to go away. That’s why high-tech approaches to fighting them are so important. The drone solution being used by firefighters on the West Coast is certainly a step in the right direction.

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