Wildfire: UAS support at the Funny River Fire
In May of 2014 a forest fire began near Soldotna, Alaska and quickly grew to over 20,000 acres; eventually burning over 67,000 acres total. The University of Alaska Fairbanks's (UAF) Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) received a request from the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) for our team to deploy in support of the firefighters battling the blaze.
ACUASI responded to the request with their powerhouse unmanned aircraft, the Nanook, a modified ScanEagle, which uses the Piccolo autopilot to reduce its operational footprint and increase its capabilities. ScanEagles are a long endurance aircraft that can fly for extended missions of up to 20 hours. They are 5 ft. in length, with a 10 ft. wingspan, and are capable of carrying a substantial payload (by UAS standards).
Unable to fly from the Soldotna airport, a 160 acre field was selected with the landowner’s approval. During the evenings all manned flight surrounding the fire was shut down, and ACUASI flew the UAS to gather video of the hot spots. Each morning it was provided for incorporation into the operations map so firefighters could target the most worrisome locations and contain the blaze. Likewise, ACUASI received feedback on the data from firefighters so the process and capability could be improved.
In the end, the fire covered more than 221,000 acres and required over 750 firefighters at its peak. Over 75 hot spots were identified with UAS allowing firefighters to target those areas.
A Nanook operation required an antennae system mounted on a high-lift 30 ft boom to compensate for the slightly depressed elevation of the command and control station.
The mission was a success in that the data and maps that the UAS flights provided helped prevent any loss of life or homes. Firefighters were able to reduce the blaze to a smolder in less time than they might have if the UAS had not been deployed. That said, ACUASI researchers and operators are using the Funny River Fire mission as a learning experience to improve our ability to support firefighters in the future and optimize our process to support the state in these types of emergency response scenarios.