Eye in the Sky

Can a Drone Save Yosemite?

Firefighters have a new ally: unmanned eyes in the sky.

Jae C. Hong/AP

California firefighters are using an unmanned aircraft to help fight the 12-day-old Rim fire, which has scorched more than 192,000 acres near Yosemite National Park, and is considered to be the seventh-largest wildfire in California history.

“It sees what the fire is doing,” said Capt. Will Martin of the California National Guard. "It’s instantaneous, and they can get an immediate idea where the fire is and where it is threatening.”

It is the first time that a drone, which is more commonly used in combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been used to help battle a wildfire in California. “This is our initial foray,” said Martin. “We hope it becomes part of our regular effort. It’s a game changer. It has a huge domestic capability to respond to disasters.”

With its cutting-edge imagery, the drone’s eyes are more powerful than any others; it can zoom in on burning embers, or a tree that has been hit by lightning. “If there is a lightning strike, we can tell if it is intense enough to start another fire,” Martin said.

And if firefighters are in danger, it can also provide them with the best escape routes. “It is a huge benefit for not just saving the lives of residents being threatened but also the firefighters responding to the fires,” Martin said. “Any time you can do this mission and not put lives at risk is a plus for us.”

Since its inaugural flight on Tuesday, Martin says the drone has already made a difference. “We have been able to understand the pathway where the fire is heading,” he said.

So far the gargantuan inferno, which is currently the largest of the 40 fires blazing across the United States, has destroyed 111 buildings, including 31 homes, closed a few roads, campgrounds, and trails in and around Yosemite National Forest, and threatened rows of giant ancient sequoia trees.

“Every day it seems to be burning its way into the record books,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant.

Close to 5,000 homes from Tuolumne City to Pinecrest are being threatened by the blaze as it roars through California’s steep canyons and forests, jumping from treetop to treetop on its destructive journey. Authorities have ordered most of the homes in its path to be evacuated. Other residents have been advised to evacuate.

In addition to the drone, nearly 4,000 firefighters have been deployed to battle the 252-square-mile blaze, along with a contingent of 20 helicopters and DC-10 and C-130 air tankers.

The blaze has wreaked havoc since it started on Aug. 17 in the Stanislaus National Forest near Groveland, mostly because of the rocky, uneven terrain, dry conditions, and wickedly fast winds that have hindered firefighters' efforts to contain the 300-foot wall of flames. “Typically on a wind-driven fire it will go in one direction but this one has multiple fronts, so it has kept us busy in different directions,” said Berlant. “The fire is making its own weather pattern.”

It is also hard on firefighters, who not only face deadly flames, smoke inhalation, exhaustion, and dehydration, but now elevation. “Yosemite is 5,400 feet,” says Mike Archer, a publisher and wildlife consultant. “Imagine having to fight a fire for 12 hours a day for two weeks, carry a pack and have less oxygen to breathe.”

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Meanwhile, one of the main concerns for firefighters has been making sure that the fire does not make its way into the park’s Yosemite Valley, a popular spot for tourists and the home of Half Dome and El Capitan rock formations and Bridalveil and Yosemite falls. Over four million people visit the area every year, the bulk of them during the summer months.

“It’s a national treasure and they don’t want it to turn into toast,” says Archer. So far, 43,000 acres of Yosemite National Park has been burned.

The fire, which is only 30 percent contained, has now burned to the edge of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the main water supply for 2.6 million Bay Area residents from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, but the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission said there was little danger to the reservoir because of the rocky land and limited brush around it.

Recently there have been small signs that firefighters are succeeding. “We are definitely making progress,” says Berlant. “For several days it was in the single digits for contained. We’re optimistic that we have turned a corner and have gotten an upper hand on the portion threatening homes.”

Berlant says firefighters have been helped by cooler weather, higher humidity, and slower winds. Last week, the fire destroyed 30,000 to 50,000 acres in one day, he said. But recently, the fire burned less than 10,000 acres in a 24-hour span.

As a result, firefighters have had the chance to carve out containment lines around the blaze—with the help of 62 bulldozers.

Authorities say the fire will most likely be contained by September 10. Archer is skeptical. “They won’t be getting this one out anytime soon,” he says. “Unless the rain comes in. It is going to take weeks before they have this thing fully contained. Most of it is burning in the backcountry, but it will take a lot of folks a long time to put it out.”

Even with a drone on their side.