On January 18th, 2022, the community of Bastrop, Texas located just outside of Austin experienced a wildfire resulting from a controlled burn escaping its fire line. As a former member of the Bastrop Fire Department and Retired Austin FireFighter, Coitt Kessler (who is now a DroneSense Customer Success Engineer) recalled the day of what became known as the Bastrop Rolling Pines Fire.
While performing training with a new DroneSense customer, Mr. Kessler noticed the rapid increase in smoke production and sky quickly turning brown. The fire began as a routine RX fuel mitigation burn in Bastrop State Park, something the residents of Bastrop are very accustomed to. Regrettably, the winds were high and relative humidity (RH) was low, a combination which favors bad fire behavior. He then launched his drone in the air and shared what he saw through DroneSense OpsHub, a collaborative video streaming experience which enables users to view live video streaming and safely conduct collaborative UAS operations in real time. At this moment, he witnessed the rapid fire progression and began hearing sirens coming from various directions. Shortly thereafter the first manned aircraft arrived on scene to begin water drops on the ever-growing wildfire. Mr. Kessler recalls how fast the manned aviation units were to arrive on scene which included multiple rotary aircraft (Local Starflight and Texas National Guard), a Texas Forestry Service Air Attack platform, Single Engine Airtanker’s (SEATs) and a Large Airtanker. “The Texas Forestry Service (TFS), Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM), and local resources were not holding back in any way. I was so impressed with the response to the Bastrop Rolling Pines Wildfire. The responders hit the ground running and worked as a unified team from the start”, said Kessler.
As the fight went on and the sun went down, the aviation resources began to return to their airbases to prepare for whatever the next day would bring. “This is an excellent opportunity to ‘high five’ with the manned aviation units and replace the air space with unmanned systems,” said Kessler. He added, “Unmanned systems have some real advantages over manned resources especially when considering flexible operational flight periods (evening and after-hours), mapping and thermal capabilities, and the ability to immediately enhance interoperability between both aviation and ground resources through live video streaming. Additionally, the sheer cost of employing unmanned systems over manned aircraft quickly becomes apparent when performing these unique tasks which are better suited for remote operations.”
After interfacing with Command, the UAS teams were asked if drones could be used to help in clearing a very large neighborhood adjacent to the burn. The homes and property were covered in a heavy layer of smoke and there was a real concern for both ember travel and hot spots to become a factor if ground resources were unable to locate them before the winds picked up in the morning. It was then when a team made up of three separate organizations came together to begin UAS operations. “This is normal practice for many of our active flight teams throughout the State of Texas, these groups train and work together specifically for State disaster response. We call them Public Safety Unmanned Response Teams or PSURTs, an idea which was developed within the North Central Texas Council of Governments (COG) and now has been adopted by our Gulf Coast and Central Texas CAPCOG region.
PSURT was immediately able to tie in with State agency partners which include the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas Division of Emergency Management and others. “We get to work fast. I need to emphasize, the glue that holds us all together is knowing each other’s faces, training as a team, sharing best practices as a team, and the ability to immediately collaborate using one common operating picture (COP) – DroneSense.” said Kessler.
The UAS flight teams were made up of RPICS, Visual Observers, a Data Specialist, and Mission Specialist to oversee safe unmanned system operations. Using the map layer features in DroneSense, the Data Specialist separated the neighborhood into operational grids. The flight teams were then directed by the Mission Specialist to fly thermal grid patterns using the intelligent flight planning – mapping feature also supported by the software.
All flights were able to be live-streamed to the Strike Team leader and Chief of Operations, who would then dispatch ground resources to the identified points of interest areas for investigation and extinguishment. Kessler emphasized “It’s very easy for a firefighter to look up, see the drone in the air at night, and then walk underneath where it’s hovering.” He added, “It’s also very important to note how safely we operated while flying multiple aircraft during nighttime operations in a very smoky environment. We, at all times, had eyes on our personnel and aircraft through the use of real-time drone telemetry (location, altitude, speed, and headings). DroneSense is absolutely purpose-built to safely enhance multi-aircraft response through the use of one common operating picture (COP). Our flight teams and ground resources deserve a lot of credit for working seamlessly together. Although very tired, the Bastrop FireFighters and those called in to assist had no quit; each and everyone out there was all business.”
Through the night, flight teams worked hand in hand with ground resources until the neighborhood was clear. Once the sun came up, the UAS were then re-purposed for mapping missions and situational awareness through live streaming during daylight hours. It was at this time that more resources began to arrive which included both manned and unmanned aircraft. Again, DroneSense was used to enhance interoperability through the sharing of mission codes bringing all unmanned aircraft operations under one COP. The use of radios amongst the participating flight teams were key with communicating with manned aircraft operations, which is critical to maintaining the separation of airspace to ensure safe flight operations.
The public safety community always recognizes the importance and prioritization of life safety, property conservation, and incident stabilization. They also value the statement – good decision making is a result of the ability to both rapidly gather and process large amounts of data in real-time. While rapidly moving into 2022 with the goal of operating safer, faster, and more efficiently, public safety agencies worldwide would benefit from paying closer attention to and consider alternative, non-traditional wildfire mitigating tools such as Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
At the end of the operation, Kessler reflected on the events of the day he had witnessed firsthand with a sense of pride, not only for the response and hard work of those responding to protect the community in which he lives, but also for progressive usage of tools that are often better suited than traditional methods of wildfire mitigation. “In order to fully unlock the potential of both the drones and their operators, the secret sauce is pairing the right software to the drones being operated. DroneSense is absolutely the software required to maximize collaboration and interoperability. There’s simply nothing else on the market which compares.”