A drone is shown in a photo supplied by Hummingbird Drones

B.C. tests drones to help fight wildfires

Drones tested to help fight blazes in difficult B.C. wildfire season

  • Nov. 3, 2015 8:00 p.m.

By Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER – Drones flying above wildfires in British Columbia last summer hampered aerial efforts to control the blazes. But around the same time, the province was also using the unmanned aerial vehicles to determine if drones could be used to help fight wildfires.

The B.C. Wildfire Service contracted two commercial drone companies in July and August to soar above the Boulder Creek and Elaho fires near Pemberton and the Rock Creek fire just north of the Canada-U.S. border.

“It was very much kind of a small-scale trial to see how they could integrate, what kind of products they could generate for us,” explained chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek.

The drones flew in areas where flames had already been doused, mapping fires and using thermal imaging to look for hotspots that could flare again.

Typically, finding hotspots is done with helicopters using a thermal scanning device or people searching the forest floor on their hands and knees, Skrepnek said.

Robert Atwood, co-founder of Hummingbird Drones in Kamloops, B.C., said his experience fighting wildfires during summer breaks from university helped tailor services specifically to support fire suppression efforts.

“What we’re trying to accomplish is making the process of putting (fires) out more efficient,” he explained.

Three of the company’s machines were used in the test, each equipped with infrared scanning technology. They flew mostly at night, at times soaring almost 500 metres in the air.

The team would then compile the data and get it to fire crews by the next morning to help them focus fire-fighting efforts.

In order to fly over the blazes, Atwood and his team needed to get a special flight-operation certificate from Transportation Canada that allowed them into the restricted airspace.

Not having the proper training and permits can cause big problems, Atwood said.

“When you have people who take what is essentially a tool and fly it without regard for human life and property, it can not only be damaging to those trying to fight the wildfire, but incredibly damaging to a program that’s trying to take on new technology as well.”

An unauthorized drone flying near the Testalindin Creek fire near Oliver, B.C., in August grounded eight helicopters and five planes for more than three hours.

It was the most serious incident involving drones around wildfires this summer, but it wasn’t the only time the machines threatened firefighting efforts.

“Obviously, that’s a pretty big safety concern to us. If it were to come into contact with our aircraft, that could have potentially dangerous results,” Skrepnek said.

It’s unclear what the unauthorized drones were doing in the restricted airspace and no one was ever caught.

During the test project, the drones were communicating and co-ordinating with fire crews, Skrepnek said.

“It is two very different issues involving the same type of aircraft. But it is, I think, just an opportunity to remind people again that unsanctioned use in and around fires is illegal,” Skrepnek said.

No decision has been made on whether drones will become a regular part of the province’s firefighting arsenal, but Skrepnek said the experience was positive.

Other firefighting forces are testing drones, too, Skrepnek said, including Alaska and the U.S. forest services.

Cost of the trial hasn’t been tallied.

“But certainly, if you do look at using this product compared to the hourly cost of flying a helicopter, it would certainly be a fraction of the cost,” Skrepnek said.

Just Posted

Okanagan Wildfires: An afternoon update on wildfires and evacuations

A Sunday afternoon look at the major wildfires impacting the Okanagan and Similkameen.

VIDEO: Sailing under the sun at the BC Games

Maple Bay in the Cowichan Valley was host to dozens of athletes sailing on small prams to planing dinghys

BC Wildfire holding steady on Okanagan Complex

Evening update on Okanagan fire situation

Wild fires blaze in the Okanagan, in your words

We have compiled a community photo album of your wildfire photos

Power couple speed into top spot at L’Alpe de Grand Blanc at Big White

The professional riders have been training all year

BC Games: Day 3 wrap and closing ceremonies

The torch in the Cowichan Valley has been extinguished as Fort St. John gets ready to host the 2020 BC Winter Games

Police confirm girl, 8 others injured in Toronto shooting; shooter dead

Paramedics said many of the victims in Danforth, including a child, were rushed to trauma centres

Why do they do it? Coaches guide kids to wins, personal bests at the BC Games

Behind the 2,300 B.C. athletes are the 450 coaches who dedicate time to help train, compete

Reel Reviews: Floundering inferno

We quote Charlie Brown: “Good grief!”

UPDATE: Five taken to hospital following one of two Coquihalla accidents

One airlifted in critical condition, four taken via ambulance in stable condition

Ottawa fails to find alternative buyer for Trans Mountain pipeline by deadline

The feds had announced it was purchasing the $4.5 billion pipeline earlier this spring

Government sets full-time salary range for Justin Trudeau’s nanny

At its top range, the order works out to a rate of $21.79 per hour, assuming a 40-hour work week

Lower Mainland teams battle for baseball gold at BC Games

Vancouver Coastal squeaked out a 3-2 win against Fraser Valley

The Northern Secwepemc te Qelmucw people signed an agreement-in-principle with the B.C. government

The signing ceremony, at the Eliza Archie Memorial School, was 25 years in the making

Most Read