Faced with unprecedented blazes, the firefighters of America have armed themselves with a metaphor: they will literally fight fire with fire.
The best tools for fighting fires are water hoses, bulldozers, and brush-clearing axes. In an unusually severe wildfire season, however, firefighters across the West Coast of the United States are employing fireball-dropping drones to keep the flames under control, according to National Geographic.
The ping pong ball-sized fireballs called “dragon’s eggs” are built to explode when they collide with the ground, starting small fires known as backfires. For the uninitiated, this method may sound counterintuitive. However, the goal is to remove fuel sources from the area to ensure larger fires spreading nearby are denied fuel.
“A bonus is you can do nighttime ops and work in smoky conditions, because if a drone crashes, no one dies,” Simon Weibel, a firefighter who works for a company called Drone Amplified, told National Geographic.
The drones are capable of releasing an efficient 450 incendiary devices in a matter of minutes with about 30 pilots operating around two dozen drones across the Western states. This is twice as many as last year, since the fires in 2020 are proving to be far bigger and more difficult to grapple with.
The drones are capable of releasing an efficient 450 incendiary devices in a matter of minutes with about 30 pilots operating around two dozen drones across the Western states.
“We’re getting a significant increase in requests this year,” Joe Suarez, a drone specialist with the National Park Service, told National Geographic. “We don’t have the pilots or aircraft to meet the needs now.”
At the Point Reyes fire, the drones were “a good safety tool for getting in where it was too thick or too steep for the firefighters,” says Suarez. The dragon’s eggs dropped enabled the backfire to cover a strip of land that was 300 to 400 feet wider, making it a much more effective barrier against the spread of wildfire, too.
The firefighters have had to come prepared this time around; they are also using smoke-penetrating thermal imaging cameras used to spot fire movement and hot spots otherwise hidden by heavy smoke, providing added safety, and sporting high-tech flame-resistant and breathable clothing. The new materials have dramatically reduced heat casualties in areas where the temperature can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit before anything catches fire.
California has paired these drones with dozens of traditional aircrafts releasing water and fire retardant. The newest addition to the fleet, the Cal Firehawk, is capable of dropping 1,000 gallons, three times as much water as older helicopters, and then can refill its tanks with a snorkel at a nearby body of water.