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Why Firefighters Aren't Using Drones to View the Blazes — Yet

Drones have helped capture images of the Rim Fire and other big blazes. But so far, the images of the fires burning in San Diego County have come from hobbyists.

Some of the most dramatic, sweeping views of the fires engulfing San Diego County this week didn’t come from fire officials or news stations. They came from average Joe citizens who happen to own a drone.

One hobbyist used his small system to capture footage of billowing smoke and flames in San Marcos.

Chad Coleman of Carlsbad attracted requests from CNN after he posted photos aerial photos and video captured by his small drone.

Their footage offers an expansive look at the wildfires. Fire officials who use more sophisticated versions get even more detailed views and heat maps that help them predict where flames could spread next.

Here’s one sample from a 2007 test.

Image via Dryden Flight Research Center

Image via Dryden Flight Research Center

But so far state and local fire authorities haven’t deployed any drones to explore the fires currently burning in San Diego County.

Not that they own any. Fire officials who’ve gotten an assist from camera-toting drones in the past have relied on state-level requests for federal assistance and military pilots to control them.

That means the agency is unlikely to request one unless fire conditions get more extreme, said Marc Hafner, a deputy chief with Cal Fire.

Drones are particularly helpful to fire officials when dense smoke makes it unsafe for traditional helicopter pilots to fly, a dynamic strong winds have staved off in San Diego County this week.

More desperate conditions in the county about a decade ago helped inspire a California-based NASA research center to test a General Atomics Predator to film and photograph major Southern California wildfires a few years later.

The test won raves from one fire official coordinating the fight against Santa Barbara County’s 2007 Zaca Fire.

“We could see little on the ground since the fire was generating a lot of smoke and burning in a very remote and inaccessible area,” Zaca Incident Commander Mike Dietrich said in a 2007 press release about the Predator testing. “This technology captured images through the smoke and provided real time information on what the fire was doing.”

Drones were deployed again to battle the Rim Fire last fall, a disaster that burned nearly 260,000 acres in the Sierra Nevadas.

Once Gov. Jerry Brown got the OK  from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the FAA, the drone outfitted with heat sensors and a swiveling camera descended over the massive wildfire that decimated tens of thousands of acres in Yosemite National Park.

The drone allowed pilots hundreds of miles away to “quickly alert fire bosses to a new flare-up they otherwise wouldn’t have immediately seen,” according to the Associated Press.

Fire officials told the AP the drone could remain in the air for up to 22 hours, a vast improvement over helicopters used for the same purpose that needed to refuel every two hours.

Capt. Will Martin of the California National Guard said his team hasn’t been called to assist with the San Diego County fires yet but he expects they’ll be called out several times this year. He thinks the Guard’s drone could be a crucial resource.

“It has such a great emergency response capacity for us to forgo using it would cost lives,” Martin said. “We’re excited to just be able to put it into play.”

This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the previous story – Four Myths About San Diego’s Drone Industry – and the next in our series – In SD, Drone-Makers Are Mysterious Even to Industry Insiders.

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