By Jeff Duewel and Scott Stoddard

The Daily Courier

GRANTS PASS — Kale Casey almost can’t believe what a metal bird 5 feet long, weighing 44 pounds with wings spanning 10 feet, can do to help fight a wildfire.

“For eight hours a night, without getting tired, without needing a meal … scanning the landscape, mapping, searching for hotspots,” Casey, a fire information officer for the Taylor Creek Fire, reeled off. “It’s by far the most impressive tool I’ve seen in my wildfire career. It’s the best friend a firefighter could have.”

The ScanEagle unmanned aircraft system, or UAS — what some would call a drone — has been monitoring the Taylor Creek Fire west of Grants Pass every night for over two weeks. It also spent time on the Grave Creek Fire north of Wimer, and has logged 110 flight hours in 16 flights, according to ScanEagle.

Unlike other aircraft, it flies in smoke, at night, and provides real-time information to firefighters on the ground, detecting hotspots, providing a previously unattainable scan of wildfires without the concern of pilot safety. It has a range of over 50 miles with six gallons of gas and can fly for more than 20 hours.

This isn’t a toy from a department store. More like a possible mini-revolution in firefighting.

“At some point you’ll have an unmanned system over every fire,” said Paul Allen, account manager for Insitu, a company based in the Columbia River Gorge town of Bingen, Washington that makes the ScanEagle. “We can operate in conditions where it’s really hazardous for manned aircraft.”

On a ridgetop in southern Douglas County on a recent Tuesday night, amid slash piles left from a clearcut, a team of four men launched the ScanEagle, which carried infrared and electro-optical cameras along with tactical fire-mapping equipment.

Three of the people on-site were Insitu aircraft operators and were led by Ty Sibley, who’s worked with the company’s drones for nine years.

“We’re all real pilots, too,” Sibley said. “We all fly real planes.

“In the aviation community, we don’t get a lot of respect as drone pilots, but it’s getting better.”

Sibley has a commercial pilot’s license, Justin Coats holds a commercial helicopter pilot’s license, and Gabe Garriga is licensed to fly private planes.

“We understand airspace and the complexity of weather and where there could be other airplanes flying by,” Sibley said. “We take it pretty serious.”

Sibley served two six-month tours in Iraq, operating drones from forward-operating bases, and also launched them from patrol boats.

He prepped the ScanEagle for its mission alongside the pneumatic launcher that would slingshot the aircraft into the night sky.

At 9:42 p.m., the bird was airborne. It would ascend over the launch site on a corkscrew-shaped flight path to about 8,000 feet before heading toward the fire zone, where it flies at 5,000 feet. Sibley said it would return at 5 a.m., seven and a half hours later, snagged out of midair by a stationary cable that is grasped by a wingtip hook, guided by dual GPS units on both the aircraft and the towering snare.

Pilots take two-hour shifts guiding the drone and aiming its camera at the landscape. The infrared camera can detect a hotspot the size of a dinner plate from more than a mile away, and those watching the video feed can communicate with firefighters on the ground to direct them to problem areas that can’t be seen in the dark.

J.D. Morton works for the Bureau of Land Management as a smokejumper out of Fairbanks, Alaska. He’s the firefighting liaison who helps get information from the ScanEagle to crews on the ground. He explained the benefits of sending the drone up after dark, drawing a circle in the dirt about 10 inches in diameter.

“Something that small in the day won’t be putting up enough smoke,” Morton said. “Three hundred acres and you’re looking for that?

“That’s why we fly at night, because it’s a lot easier to see on the IR (infrared) camera. During the day, that size of a piece of a heat would be very, very challenging. You’d miss it, something that small.”

Insitu employees control the bird and monitor its work on computers inside a truck from the remote mountain, several miles from the fire. There’s no joystick to fly the drone, although one is used to control the camera.

“With ScanEagle, you click on the map with a mouse and tell the airplane where to go,” Casey said.

Casey said on a recent Monday night the ScanEagle found a hotspot near Chrome Ridge Road on the west side of the fire, which firefighters were sent to douse.

“Let’s put it this way, when spot fires get established, it creates a lot of work,” Casey said. “It’s a tough firefight in the middle of the night. And these are 30-plus-day fires, a marathon, with a lot of wear and tear on firefighters.

“(With the ScanEagle) you have a nice radio alert, find the piece of heat and walk over and take care of it.”

Unmanned aircraft systems have become part of wildland firefighting only in the last few years. In 2017 federal firefighters used them on 340 wildfires in Oregon, the most missions among 12 states where they were used, according to the Department of Interior.