Drones with infrared capability could help where thick smoke keeps manned helicopters from gathering fire information. They also could keep people out of risky situations, provide real-time information to firefighters on the ground and alert officials when conditions change or the fire jumps the line.
While drones have been used in rare cases already, managers with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service say the headlines are ahead of technology and the agencies' comfort zone and pocketbooks.
"I think you are going to see them sooner than you think," said Rusty Warbis, flight operations manager at the BLM's National Aviation Office. "Right now it is procedures, policy and regulation that's really holding it up."
What's more, Warbis said, the BLM isn't quite sure how to incorporate drones into an already busy wildfire airspace without creating a hazard. More complex is the task of taking the drone's information and communicating it in a way helpful to planners and tacticians, he said.
Last year, a California National Guard Predator drone was dispatched to aid firefighters battling the Rim Fire, which burned 257,314 acres in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite National Park.
The drone "proved particularly effective for perimeter and spot fire detection," says a report by Josh McDaniel of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. It was the first and most significant launch of a drone in wildfire history and "could point the way to how these assets are used on future fires."
"Fire managers on the Rim Fire say that the (drones) also have potential application in a wide range of missions related to communication crew, safety and night ops," McDaniel wrote.
The drone picked up a critical spot fire that could have spread into a populated area. It also had the technology to identify the precise latitude and longitude of such spot fires for an airdrop of water or retardant, he reported.
The drone could fly from one side of the fire to the other in about 15 minutes and could see more than two helicopters monitoring opposite ends of the blaze. It easily saw through light and dry smoke, but it was grounded when the Rim Fire experienced inversion, trapping smoke near the ground.
The drone was operated by a military crew completely unfamiliar with fire behavior, requiring a fire behavior specialist to gather and interpret the information.
Other drones have been used since, including one from the University of Alaska Fairbanks that flew a "Scan Eagle" into the Funny River Fire on the Kenai Peninsula in May.
Recently, Oregon's Department of Forestry which has its own firefighters approved one forester's idea of using a much smaller drone. The state plans to equip a small, remote-controlled helicopter with video, infrared cameras and GPS systems at a cost of about $5,000.
Firefighters hope to fly it into smoke-choked canyons when helicopters are unable, then share the information with firefighters and other agencies. In a decade, Warbis said, firefighters could be equipped with such small drones as regular field equipment.
The Oregon drone is only cleared to fly 400 feet above the ground and holds enough gas to run for 30 minutes. One Predator drone costs $17 million, can stay in the sky 20 hours and operates at 18,000 feet altitude.
The Forest Service has "dabbled" in using drones while a committee of specialists works on a report examining their use in all of the agency's programs, not only wildfire, said Mike Ferris, spokesman for the fire aviation management division.
"We're not going to run out and buy something without understanding things like cost, storage, maintenance, deployment and training," he said. "There are so many components to taking on a program of that nature that you really have to turn it out first."
Warbis said the BLM is further along in its use of drones. It has 16 ongoing projects that employ two drone types for anything from data collection on wildlife to aerial surveys and archaeology.
"Technology is getting way out ahead of us, and we're working to catch up with it," Ferris said.
Warbis said he doubts the BLM will create its own firefighting drone division, instead contracting that work out with private groups that would respond to a la carte orders for services on specific fires.
"I may have 20 (drone types) on your shelf and go, 'Yes, I can fill that need with this (drone).' That keeps me from having to come up with pilots that are qualified to fly technology that's moving so fast that it is obsolete by the time I buy it. . You'd have to put up a full-blown unit with the training and standardization and everything. And in this day and age of government budgets, it's going to be hard-pressed."
Indeed, wildland firefighting costs are a major issue these days. Many members of Congress released a joint statement Friday, reaffirming their support for sweeping changes in how firefighting is funded and placing more money in coffers for prevention.
McDaniel's report, however, notes the reduced hourly cost of the Predator drone, at $770 an hour, compared with a Type 3 helicopter at $3,500 an hour.
Drones could help in one of Idaho's most treacherous fire sites, the Salmon River Breaks, where helicopters often can't fly into smoke-filled canyons, said Randy Skelton, deputy fire staff officer for the Payette National Forest. In 2003, two firefighters were killed in the Breaks, an area known for high and erratic winds and frequent lightning strikes.
"I'm all for advancing technology if it is going to help out," Skelton said "If you don't need to expose firefighters and pilots to that hazard, it'd definitely be worth exploring."
But Skelton said he's not ready to replace experienced human eyes with drone sensors. Drones may be useful to cheaply monitor fires that the Forest Service lets burn in accordance with management objectives, he said.
"It is just not as 3-D as you'd like it to be like seeing it in person," he said of infrared, video and other imagery captured from the air. "It is better intel than not seeing it at all. But a tactician being able to fly over the fire and being able to give you real time feedback (is better) versus trying to decipher what you are seeing on a camera or infrared image."
Warbis agreed that a drone would lack the intuition many experts rely on when seeing a fire from the air.
"With someone trying to make decisions from data through a drone, you are not in the scene," he said. "You are observing the scene, and there is a risk there. . You get a sense, a full, overall picture and awareness. When you are looking at a screen, I think it would be too easy to sit back and not have as much of the picture as you might like."
Connectivity from those receiving the drone's data with command on the ground may be complicated, too, Ferris said.
"Do we tap into their iPads? . If we are in the urban interface, there is pretty good connectivity. But once you get out into the central mountains of Idaho, well, good luck."
In the meantime, all fire officials interviewed agreed that the biggest concern about drones is not whether they'd be effective in fighting fires. Rather, they worry about private drones interfering with air attack operations.
The BLM and Forest Service issued a safety alert June 25 after a private citizen launched a DJI Phantom to film the Two Bulls Fire northwest of Bend, Ore. Warbis said the BLM is working hard to get the word out about the dangers private drones pose while meddling inside a fire's airspace.
"It's bad enough if you hit a bird. Think if you hit a 40-pound piece of metal not going to be good," he said.