Wash. DNR to Launch Drones to Monitor Wildfires

July 16--OLYMPIA -- The state Department of Natural Resources plans to test the use of drones to monitor wildfires this summer.

The agency has the use of one aircraft, on loan and free of charge, and hasn't yet decided when or where to test it, said Mary Verner, DNR's deputy supervisor for resource protection and administration. "We are going to look for the appropriate circumstance, and that's unpredictable," she said in a news conference this morning.

The aircraft is called the ScanEagle -- built by Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing -- and is about 4 feet long with a 10-foot wingspan. It weighs about 40 pounds and is equipped with a video camera that sends information directly back to the firefighting basecamp.

Recent approval from the Federal Aviation Administration follows the state Legislature's authorization in its last session to use what are called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, for surveillance of fires that pose an urgent threat.

Verner said her agency will need prior approval from the FAA each time the ScanEagle is used, and it will not be used when other aircraft are being flown in the area.

The DNR currently uses airplanes and helicopters for fire surveillance, but they can be grounded by smoke, wind or darkness.

"Sometimes we can't get our pilots in because it's dangerous," said DNR spokeswoman Janet Pearce. "Now, we can send in a UAV. It's going to save lives. It's going to give us more information on the fire."

Verner said that information includes flame lengths, how quickly fuels are catching fire, how fast the fire is spreading, and what direction it's moving.

She said other states, including Alaska, Oregon and North Dakota already use similar unmanned aircraft for wildfire surveillance.

"Use of a UAV can help get real-time information to firefighters on the ground," Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said in a prepared statement. "Just over the last few days we've seen more than a hundred fire starts in Washington. Additional information can provide a safer operating environment for firefighters."

Reach K.C. Mehaffey at 509-997-2512 or mehaffey@wenatcheeworld.com. Read her blog An Apple a Day or follow her on Twitter at @KCMehaffeyWW.

Copyright 2014 - The Wenatchee World, Wash.

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