A drone is shown in a photo supplied by Hummingbird Drones

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 6:00 a.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

Potters Virginia Dunseith and Ruth Porter present their joint exhibit ‘Dig It’ at Art 10 Gallery until the end of June. (Josef Jacobson/News Bulletin)
Potters show pieces for home and garden at Nanaimo’s Art 10 Gallery

Virginia Dunseith and Ruth Porter’s show ‘Dig It’ on display until end of June

Construction work continues on the City of Nanaimo’s new Fire Station No. 1 on Fitzwilliam Street. (News Bulletin file)
Next phase of borrowing approved as Nanaimo fire hall construction ongoing

City of Nanaimo CAO says construction on Fitzwilliam Street hall on schedule and budget

Nanaimo Fire Rescue firefighters at the scene of a single-vehicle crash on Tenth Street near Southside Drive on Sunday, June 13. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
Driver OK after crashing vehicle off the side of Nanaimo’s Tenth Street

Crews say wet roads a factor a crash Sunday, June 13

Emergency crews on scene of a two-car crash at the intersection of Cranberry Avenue and the Trans-Canada Highway on Sunday, June 13. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
Crash blocks Cranberry intersection in Nanaimo, no one injured

Incident blocks both southbound lanes of Trans-Canada Highway

Emergency crews on scene of a two-car crash at the intersection of Cranberry Avenue and the Trans-Canada Highway on Sunday, June 13. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
Crash blocks Cranberry intersection in Nanaimo, no one injured

Incident blocks both southbound lanes of Trans-Canada Highway

Gabriola Island artist Sheila Norgate is promoting the Digital Innovation Group’s art impact survey. (File photo)
Vancouver Island artists get behind regional arts impact study

Artists urged to use their stature to help put arts and culture super-region on the map

The BC Ferries website went down for a short while Monday morning following a provincial announcement that recreational travel between health authorities can resume Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries’ website crashes in wake of provincial reopening announcement

Website back up now, recreational travel between health regions to resume as of Tuesday

Darren Campbell’s truck (pictured) was stolen when he stopped to check on a car in a ditch on Cowichan Bay Road on Monday morning. (Facebook photo)
Vancouver Island Good Samaritan’s truck stolen in nasty trick

‘Try to be a Good Samaritan and my $20,000 truck gets stolen right under my nose’

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

Creative handmade signs abound at the June 13 Tofino rally for old growth trees. (Nora O’Malley photo)
VIDEO: Tofino stands in solidarity for Fairy Creek Blockades

Over 150 supporters attend rally hosted by Friends of Clayoquot Sound

FILE – Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials watching U.K.’s Delta variant struggles, ‘may need to slow’ restart plan

Studies show that one dose of vaccine is only 33 per cent effective in preventing B.1.617.2 spread

RCMP Const. Shelby Patton is shown in this undated handout photo. RCMP say that Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over on Saturday morning in Wolseley, east of Regina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP
Pair charged in Saskatchewan Mountie’s death make first court appearance

Const. Shelby Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over Saturday morning

David and Collet Stephan leave for a break during an appeal hearing in Calgary on Thursday, March 9, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Appeal Court rejects stay for Alberta couple facing third trial in son’s death

Pair accused in their earlier trials of not seeking medical attention for their son sooner

Most Read