Can drones help drought-stricken states combat wildfires more effectively?

This blog previously looked at the threat posed by wildfires, which have burned almost 60 million acres and destroyed more than 13,000 primary structures in the United States during the past decade. Long-running droughts have escalated the risk in many communities, particularly in the western states.

This year has been particularly intense, with some saying there has essentially been a continuation of last year’s fire season, with no break in between the two. California Governor Jerry Brown has speculated that the state may need to hire thousands of additional firefighters, among other “very expensive investments,” to stay in control of the situation.

According to Environment & Energy Publishing’s ClimateWire, the Oregon Department of Forestry is considering a different option: deploying drones in the fight against wildfires. While these small units will not immediately be able to match all of the functions that larger, manned airplanes currently perform—such as dropping water on fires—experts believe that drones could become an important tool for managing wildfires in the future.

Fire prevention specialist Brian Ballou told the source that using unmanned vehicles for reconnaissance provides one key advantage: they can be sent into smoky airspace that is seen as too hazardous for human pilots to enter, providing more information about conditions on the ground than is currently available.

“You are always looking for improved visibility of your fire,” Ballou said. He explained that uncertainty about how a fire is spreading can put firefighters at risk and gathering data from drones “just cuts down on the unknowns.”

The remote-controlled unit that the state is deploying this summer is equipped with infrared cameras, a GPS tracking device and other technology for gathering data about wildfires. Pending the success of this experiment, more public safety agencies could begin to deploy drones in the near future. However, Mike Wilkins, a district ranger at the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina, said caution is needed.

“I think all agencies think we need a little more testing,” he said.

While new technologies unquestionably offer promising opportunities to combat wildfires more effectively, it will be impossible to eliminate the risk entirely. Wildfires often start in remote areas and can become quite large by the time they are detected and brought to the attention of authorities.

For this reason, properties located in outlying areas will continue to face an elevated risk from wildfires. Insurance carriers can help prepare for these destructive events by implementing a single valuation system that can be used to generate accurate replacement cost estimates for residential, commercial and farm & ranch properties.