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When it comes to wildfires in the West, there are many startling statistics.Across 11 Western states, there are more than 60 large fires burning now, consuming more than 1.5 million acres. Nevada and California rank as two of the top 10 most wildfire-prone states in the country. Each year, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior spend an average of $3.4 billion to fight these types of fires. That's three times what they spent annually back in the 1990's.With prolonged drought conditions and warmer temperatures due to climate change, officials with the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District say the region's fire season, which typically spans from June to September, is now year-round. In fact, the Caughlin Ranch Fire was in November of 2011 and the Washoe Drive Fire was in December of 2012. They each burned nearly 30 homes and caused millions of dollars in damage. For our series Putting Out the Fire, Reno Public Radio is exploring some of the innovative approaches to fighting and preventing devastating wildfires.

Putting Out The Fire, Part Three: Outsmarting The Next Big Blaze

Drone America

Our series Putting Out The Fire has been exploring new ways of fighting and preventing devastating wildfires, which are a major threat to Nevada and California during this fourth year of drought. In this segment, Reno Public Radio’s Michelle Bliss explores how high-tech cameras and drones are rewriting the rules of firefighting.

Mike Richards is CEO of Drone America, a small company on the forefront of changing how emergency responders can fight fires.
He likens the drones of tomorrow to comic-book superheroes of the past. 
“When I was a kid," Richards remembers, "I used to look up at the sky and go, ‘Is it a bird? Is it plane? No, it’s Superman. Now, I think our kids look up at the sky and go, ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, Mommy, it’s a drone!’”

Richards has taken that larger-than-life motif one step further into the branding of his drones, especially in Youtube videos like this one:

The buzzing you hear along with that action hero score is Drone America’s DAx8, a model that recently received FAA approval for testing. That means emergency management officials in Washoe County can start figuring out how UAV technology can best assist their efforts on dangerous, costly operations like conducting search and rescue missions or battling blazes.

Drones will be able to help find fires after lightning storms, map fires as they move, and Richards says they'll help afterwards, too. 

Credit Drone America
Drone America

“After the fire has been cleaned up," he explains, "you can fly over the actual smoldering remains and see if there are any hotspots, anything that might kick back to life.”

One of Drone America’s consultants, Tim Ball, has been fighting wildfires across the West for half a century, often taking aerial shots from his helicopter. He says drones offer the ability to safely operate in the dark.

“There are no air tankers that fly at night now," Ball says, "because it’s a really dangerous thing. When the UAVs are good enough, I suspect that there’s going to be the chance to deliver water and fire retardant on fires at night. The best time to fight a fire is at night because it’s slowed down.”

Another major concern for first responders is how quickly a fire can change its course or intensity. Ball says that getting real-time information about a fire’s activity, instead of one aerial shot each day, is going to save lives:

“I’m really looking forward to that safety aspect of it because I know a lot of firefighters that have been killed, and it’s pretty hard.”

Credit Nevada Seismological Laboratory
Nevada Seismological Laboratory
The AlertTahoe fire camera system captured this view of smoke billowing over Lake Tahoe during the King Fire in 2014.

While Nevada and the rest of the nation waits for the FAA to approve more drone testing and operation, there is another technology that’s helping to fight fires now. It’s a growing camera system called AlertTahoe that’s run by the Seismological Lab at the University of Nevada, Reno. 

“On August 9 last year, the Snow Valley Peak camera was used to discover after a lightning strike a tree on fire. It was less than a halfacre when it was put down, so that was an early success.”

That’s Graham Kent, who runs the program. From the comfort of his office at UNR, he can check the live feeds for eight cameras across Northern Nevada and Lake Tahoe. Since the window of opportunity to prevent fires from gaining major momentum is short, catching fires early on is critical.

“For example, the Angora Ridge Fire smoldered all morning before it blew up in 2007," Kent recalls. "Our cameras are trained right on the spot. One would have easily been able to see that smoldering campfire, and that was another one that cost $160 million.”

As Kent continues raising awareness and funding to extend his network of cameras, he says addressing fires in the short-term, while they rage, is unsustainable:

“We can’t just try to get through this summer and then declare victory because it  may be the next summer and the next summer and the summer after that, and what are we doing to prepare ourselves technologically to adapt and fight these fires.” 

For Kent, and many others, this crusade is personal. Back in 2003, he lived through the Cedar Fire in San Diego County, one of the largest urban fires in the U.S. After watching the homes of several neighbors and friends burn to the ground, Kent’s goal now is to outsmart the next big blaze.


Michelle Billman is a former news director at KUNR Public Radio.
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