Special Video Series All Together Now

How drones are fighting fire with fire in the American West

As the climate changes dramatically, droughts and heat waves have become much more dangerous. Combined with decades of policies that prevented the controlled burning of fire-prone forests, much of the American West is now a tinderbox. According to the U.S. Forest Service, 63 million acres are at high risk of wildfire. 

“Between 1935 and the late 1970s, the United States had a policy of [total] fire suppression. The goal was to keep fire out of the landscape entirely,” explains Rebecca Miller, a Postdoctoral Scholar at USC-Huntington Institute for the West. “However, research that came out in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that prescribed burns were actually extraordinarily beneficial to ecosystems. The removal of fire resulted in overgrown vegetation and far less healthy forests.”

Prescribed (or controlled) burns are fires humans set intentionally to clear away hazardous fuel, like dry trees or grass, to reduce wildfire risk. This is usually done preemptively in the wet season, or during emergency situations when wildfires are threatening developed areas. Firefighters often use prescribed burns to create firebreaks, which are gaps in vegetation or flammable material that slow or even stop wildfires so firefighters can use water or other retardants to put it out.

Prescribed burns are nothing new. Indigenous burning has been practiced by Native Americans for millennia to clear lands for hunting or crops and put nutrients back into the ground.

Today, prescribed burns are often conducted by helicopter, dropping ping-pong-ball-sized spheres that then ignite and start small fires. But this is a dangerous job.

“About a quarter of all [wildland firefighter] fatalities are related to aviation,” says Carrick Detweiler, CEO of Drone Amplified. “Flying low and slow over fires is a really challenging, difficult, and dangerous task. In 2019 a firefighter in Texas died performing these types of prescribed fires from a helicopter when the helicopter crashed.” 

Detweiler is a professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln where he has a research lab focusing on drone technology. Hoping to solve this problem of firefighter safety, he began exploring drone technology, which he then spun off into a commercial product for firefighters: the IGNIS system. 

IGNIS attaches to an off-the-shelf drone and is capable of carrying up to 400 balls filled with potassium permanganate. The system automatically punctures the ball and injects it with glycol, drops it…and boom, 30 to 60 seconds later you’ve got a targeted fire.

The drone system allows firefighters for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to fly at night and in heavy smoke using thermal imagery

“In 2020, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management deployed our system on almost all of the major wildfires that we saw in California, Colorado, and Oregon,” says Detweiler. “In fact, they dropped over 200,000 of these ignition spheres with our system. Right now only a small number of firefighters have trained to use this technology. In the coming years we hope there will be one of our systems with every firefighting team out fighting these wildfires to help save lives.”

According to Miller, there’s a ton of work to do and not much time. In California specifically, due to policy that forbid prescribed burns, much of the landscape is untreated, and vulnerable to fire. “We need to be treating 20 million acres in California—that’s about 20% of the entire state,” Miller says. “We need more active fuel management, including efforts like prescribed burns, and we also need to look to our policy makers and to our neighbors, to take their own active steps towards protecting ourselves and our communities.”