Americas Fire Multirotor

Naches Heights fire official sees drone use as a tool to help firefighters


After a suspicious brush fire in Naches Heights earlier this summer, Steven Mack decided to get a better look at the fire scene.

Rather than walk the charred earth or seek out higher ground to gain an overview, the Naches Heights Fire Department lieutenant used his DJI Phantom Vision 2 quadcopter to fly over the fire site and shoot video from different angles.

The video, he said, showed how the fire burned and offered possible clues to guide investigators to its origin.

Mack hopes the quadcopter gets used more often in firefighting and rescue operations.

“I see this as a toolbox,” he said.

Other fire officials think the aircraft, commonly called drones, have potential. But they don’t expect to see widespread deployment anytime soon due to cost and lack of uniform procedures for using them.

Battery-powered drones became popular about two years ago, said Mike Hanratty, owner of Mike’s Model Aircraft Supply and Hobby Center in Yakima.

Hanratty, a former president of the Yakima Valley Aeromodelers club, said the craft range from small copters that can fit in a person’s palm for less than $40, to quadcopters that can carry high-definition cameras and fly more than a mile from their operators that cost more than $1,000. The drone that Mack owns cost about $1,200.

Hobbyists use the craft to shoot pictures and video of landscapes, architecture and events. Mack, who got his drone a year ago, has shot aerial video of the entire length of Cowiche Canyon, as well as footage of a local vineyard. Hobbyists are not the only ones using them, either. Some farmers use drones to monitor fields and ensure that crops are getting enough water.

But drones have their detractors as well. There have been incidents of people shooting at quadcopters, claiming they were being spied on.

The National Park Service bans drones in parks and national monuments, saying the crafts have disturbed people and harassed wildlife.

At one California wildfire, crews suspended aerial operations because drones were at risk of colliding with air tankers and helicopters trying to quench flames. The incident prompted California lawmakers to draft a bill that would allow firefighters and emergency personnel to bring down drones during fire emergencies without fear of prosecution.

But Mack believes that, in the right hands, a drone can be an asset to firefighters. For limited personal use, such as what Mack does, no license or permit is required from the Federal Aviation Administration.

At the moment, he uses his drone to take photos and video after brush fires, allowing firefighters to survey the scene and get a better understanding of what happened. But there are other applications as well, Mack said.

For example, a fire commander could use a drone to get a bird’s-eye view of an entire brush fire to see how the flames are moving and how best to deploy firefighters. Mack said his drone can provide live views.

A drone would also be useful in situations where it’s too dangerous to send a firefighter, such as a train derailment involving hazardous materials.

“I can fly in and identify the (hazardous materials) placards on the train cars,” Mack said, allowing responders to know exactly what they are dealing with.

Drones could also aid search-and-rescue teams, allowing them to search rugged areas faster, Mack said. With GPS technology, the drone could pinpoint a lost or injured person’s precise location.

Mack said he’s been asked to do demonstrations, and has had officials with other agencies, such as the Yakima Fire Department, discuss the potential for drones.

Yakima fire Deputy Chief Ted Vander Houwen said he’s talked to Mack, and sees the benefits of the technology.

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