ROOSEVELT, AZ — The Woodbury fire has wreaked havoc in Superstition Mountains. Treacherous terrain offering complex challenges to those battling the flames. The fire service now turning to a new weapon in their arsenal: drones.
On this day, the airspace is clear and the launch underway as fire operations demonstrate their Unmanned Aircraft System.
High above the burned out landscape, it hovers for up to an hour and can move up to three miles away.
MAP: Track the Woodbury Fire burning east of the Valley
“One of the great things about the IMT and the Southwest region is they’ve been pretty pro UAS,” said Justin Baxter with UAS Fire Operations.
It's for good reason. The UAS has three main capabilities. They all center around keeping those on the ground out of harm’s way.
Whizzing through canyons and other cramped spaces while gliding low enough to capture high resolution footage.
“Before we hike a crew down there give them all the information we can before they leave the truck,” said Baxter.
Infrared cameras peer through smoke and sensors can detect hot spots and wind direction. If flames erupt near a crew, escape routes can be communicated immediately.
“Areas that might have jumped the line, spot fires, you can get some extremely accurate very quick perimeter data,” said Baxter.
They can even be used to initiate back burns, which are intentional fires set to clear defensible spaces.
It’s done by dropping small ping pong balls filled with chemicals that ignite a few seconds after hitting the ground.
“So if we want to make this road a little more secure then we’ll burn off the road to make that containment line a little wider,” said Baxter.
In the near future, these drones could be as common a tool as a hose line.
“I hope that this tool is just like the chain saw; you’re gonna have the EMT that carries the first aid kit, the sower that carries the chain saw, and the UAS pilot that carries the UAS,” said Baxter.
Fire operations says the drone program is still in its infancy but they expect it to explode in growth in the coming years.