What to know about the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act

How the new bill informs decision-making before, during and after wildland incidents


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By Michael Kirby

What if drones were in the sky over the Yarnell Hill Fire in June 2013 when strong winds overran 19 firefighters? Or the 1994 South Canyon Fire better known for the mountain on which 14 firefighters died after spotting got ahead of them? Or the 1933 Griffith Park Fire that killed nearly 30 civilians after a clearing operation gone bad?

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – or drones, as they are called colloquially – have been known for years to show great promise for wildfire surveillance and suppression. In March 2019, the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act was signed into law as Section 1114 of a broader lands bill, making good on a four-year effort led by Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington to formalize how UAS can fulfill that promise for incident commanders (ICs) and firefighters on the ground.

In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, a Cal Fire firefighter looks over a map from the back of his truck parked off Bella Vista Drive above Montecito, Calif., as the fight against a wildfire continues Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, a Cal Fire firefighter looks over a map from the back of his truck parked off Bella Vista Drive above Montecito, Calif., as the fight against a wildfire continues Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

The bill was introduced in 2015 after the Carlton Complex Fire burned nearly 150,000 acres in one day – an average of five acres per second for 24 straight hours.

“We cannot keep using the same, tired approaches that we have for the last 100 years,” Cantwell said in a statement at the time.

Understanding the Act – drones and more

Sen. Cantwell’s bill institutes provisions to boost safety for those on the front line and the public they protect. Following are the bill highlights:

  • By the 2020 fire season, large wildfires will be mapped in real time using a network of drones carrying infrared sensors.
  • The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is required to “update the wildfire decision support software that fire managers use to inform and document their decisions” to avoid duplication of effort and increase total awareness. So long as those decisions are input live and the software is up-to-date, even seasoned ICs will find the envisioned safety alerts a useful way to dispatch the right resources to the right areas and minimize danger.
  • Much like we’ve seen with the adoption of body cameras by police departments, the bill mandates that by the 2021 fire season, all federal, state or local firefighting crews working large incidents be equipped with GPS locators, giving managers real-time awareness of where crews are located.
  • The bill also directs creation of an injury database to track line-of-duty injuries and deaths, generating data to improve future training.
  • Meteorologists are now getting access to leading-edge software and satellite imagery from NASA and the Department of Energy National Laboratories. Besides having more frequent and localized wildfire forecasts, local governments, particularly in the West, will be pleased to see smoke forecasts that can assist with evacuation plans, as well as help broadcasters and local leaders inform the public as to projected smoke conditions that impact communities tens of miles or more away from unseen fires.

The impact of drones

The use of UAS is a critical component of the new law. Depending on their size, drones can float in a stationary position for hours to monitor geography with streaming video or thermal imaging travel of embers and fire spread, the condition of evacuation corridors, and act as aerial weather stations by measuring wind speed and direction – all of which contribute to tactics and containment strategies. Real-time assessments can inform decision-makers on how to escalate or dial down resources responding to a reported wildfire. During the 2017 North Umpqua Fire in Oregon, an operator reported an undetected hotspot, which led to a response estimated to have saved over $50 million in resources and property.

National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Public Safety Communications Research Division Chief Dereck Orr asked Congress in 2018 to imagine a world in which “changes in fire behavior, personnel and asset location, status updates, and weather conditions” weren’t transmitted by land mobile radios (LMR) but by drones acting as “communications hubs, allowing for not only voice communications, but location-mapping, video analytics, and real-time weather updates ... easily transmitted to first responders’ broadband devices, such as smartphones, tablets and even heads-up displays.”

Earl Lawrence, FAA’s UAS integration director, told Sen. Cantwell’s committee that as of April 2018, there were over 170,000 commercial UAS operators registered in the United States. That means there are plenty to choose from, and they probably know much of your area already, contracted as they are to inspect properties for real estate, treat land for agriculture and other uses. You may even reach out to the DOI, which now has a fleet of approximately 400 aircraft flown by over 300 certified pilots, including 80 pilots “fire-qualified” as of spring 2018.

What to do before a wildfire incident

The Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act helps inform best practices for how fire chiefs and ICs can prepare for wildland incidents.

Designate an Air Operations (AO) point person under the Unified Command System. This will be the person to direct drones to what the USFS calls the “fire traffic area” during an incident, but beforehand, your agency will want either in-house operators or to secure contracted drone operators who can be on call when the time comes. Your AO designee will want to become familiar with the UAS Traffic Management (UTM), a new system rapidly moving from the research phase at NASA to support a framework that can enable operations beyond line-of-sight at low altitudes in airspace below FAA regulated ceilings.

Do your homework. Read and reflect on the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s (NWCG) revised standard for UAS operations in February 2019. The Agriculture Department’s latest National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy published in 2016, mandated by a 2009 law, recognizes that no “one-size-fits-all approach exists to address the challenges facing the Nation.” Both documents emphasize collaboration and unity in purpose – basically that all parties (the interagency) agree on ends and means.

Check out the FAA’s DroneZone, the domestic aviation regulator’s online portal established in 2018 to provide waivers – including for nighttime operations – for UAS operators. Chances are, your nearest commercial operator has already obtained certification under 14 CFR part 107 (small drones) or 14 CFR part 137 (the holding and discharge of cargo, such as pesticides).

Practice with UAS in the Incident Command System. The Bureau of Land Management uses ICS for all wildland fire incidents, so all chiefs and ICs will be integrated into the ICS during an incident. All aviation operations are incorporated into the ICS, so all drone operations are as well. Does your agency’s incident action plan for a wildland fire include UAS already? Maybe it should; maybe it shouldn’t. Regardless, an assessment is definitely in order.

Increase your awareness of fuels. Your AO designee can interface with local government to conduct surveys of wildlands in your response area to assess risk, map vegetation and utility rights-of-way like high voltage grid lines, and battle plans for envisioning containment lines. Knowing where certain fuels exist, the density and moisture content of stands and, most importantly, how that information translates to ignition and spread under certain conditions will allow you to extend your own predictions for facing hazards in conjunction with meteorologists’ weather forecasts. Initial decisions about staffing, engines and other assets, as well as escape plans for the public devised by awareness campaigns can all result from fresh data gathered in advance or early on in an incident.

Some consultation will be needed with experts in geographic information systems (GIS) to make use of the incoming data. Off-the-shelf products are becoming available to overlay maps with the coordinates- and altitude-based information coming down from UAS.

Get to know your FAA field office and the nearest tower. According to a USFS spokesperson, FAA rulemaking “has greatly simplified and streamlined the process for using certain types of UAS in support of official business, and the USFS is actively establishing policy and guidance to take advantage of this opportunity.” Just like you have contacts with the local utility, law enforcement, FEMA and other agencies, your nearest air traffic control (ATC), military installation and FAA field office should be on your list to connect with early on in an incident if you perceive UAS will be needed.

What to do during a wildfire incident

The Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act also helps drive operational tasks during a wildfire, particularly related to drone use.

Define the Fire Traffic Area (FTA). Your AO designee will need to be in contact with the nearby ATC to obtain clearance for your aerial assets and to make sure recreational UAS operators are not in the area putting traditional fixed wing aircraft and helicopters in unnecessary danger. Just like manned aircraft, drones need LZs (landing and recovery zones) to swap batteries, ingest stored data, maintenance and the like. The LZ will need to be within the FTA, so UAS operators will need to get to a suitable place to launch and recover the vehicles.

The NWCG’s 2019 standard drills down further than an IC may need to, though their needs would compel what the document calls “the data objective” (i.e., what material is to be sent back). Interestingly, NWCG recommends that “the first aircraft on scene will establish the FTA protocol,” much like a first-due engine to an isolated structure fire.

The AO Branch must contemplate much more to achieve that, however, such as the limitations and parameters of dispatched UAS vehicle(s) themselves, including endurance (battery life), maneuverability (if the aircraft can negotiate terrain over a certain range), constant communications (with operators and to deliver data). Even under the AO Branch, the NWCG recommends at least four personnel with distinct responsibilities, including the pilot and a data specialist.

Decide how you’ll deploy UAS. Surveillance is the obvious use, but a time is not far off when larger drones can deliver slurry to quickly quash small hotspots. The expanded use of drones means ICs need not divert staffing by land or air to these otherwise threatening breakouts. Aircraft tankers or helicopters may be more up to the task; you won’t want to clutter the airspace and endanger pilots with permitted UAS any more than recreational devices. In fact, when unauthorized drones are spotted near wildfires, aerial firefighting resources are grounded.

Traditional aircraft may not be available. For example, the (seemingly unrelated) fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill passed by Congress allowed the Department of Homeland Security to avail converted HC-130H aircraft if the governor identifies less than seven on hand for firefighting inside the State of California.

What to do after a wildfire incident

Finally, the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act highlights several post-incident considerations.  

Conduct damage assessments. Erosion maps are a great way to project possible responses to the next follow-on risk to public safety and property: mudslides. Understanding how rivlets can turn into roaring walls of mud – means of ingress for rescuers and egress for residents still too often little-warned of the subsequent hazard – can be indispensable. Some of this occurs before incidents, too, such as knowing the location of dry creek beds or how melting snowpack moves, for example, but also observing changes in landscape after all manner of events.

Standard critique procedures. What worked? What didn’t work? How reliable was the new decision-making safety database if actions were input during the incident? What unforeseen conflicts could have been addressed beforehand? Typical action items must now be supplemented with UAS if your agency is to learn the most from this new feature of wildland fire suppression.

Looking ahead: Implementing the new law

Sen. Cantwell took to the Senate floor to talk up the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act in February 2019. According to Cantwell, experts in testimony and a growing body of literature, the combination of real-time mapping and GPS locaters comprise the “Holy Grail” of wildland firefighter safety.

During the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire, firefighters weren't sure exactly where the fire was, and safety officers didn't always know where crews were. Classic fireground accountability takes on a different meaning within the ICS when the scene is miles wide and, as in the case of the Carlton Complex, 2,800 personnel from across the country poured in to assist.

The 1970s-era Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) remain an indispensable element of wildland fire suppression at scale. C-130’s will not be replaced by drones but rather could become the elephant under the mouse. They can be better directed from their eight stations with 24 hours’ (their response window) worth of aerial- and satellite-generated data.

Putting NASA data and technical prowess to work for the fire service is a breakthrough that will serve the fire service well for generations to come. And residents will see real benefits from the burgeoning field of smoke forecasting in the same way their neighbors have from improvements to tornado warning systems and hurricane prediction in recent decades.

It is ultimately up to state foresters, local fire departments and the federal government – and Congress – to monitor how the new law is implemented. The 2019 fire season will tell lawmakers a lot, though a $2 billion increase in the federal wildfire suppression budget doesn’t start until fiscal 2020. If “fire borrowing” returns, federal agencies will again find themselves hamstrung, looking for accounts to divert money from and research could be hurt.

Making full use of the law will also take time – not just among customers on the ground but also federal agencies tasked with implementing it. Sen. Cantwell learned at a June 2019 committee hearing that obtaining up-to-the-minute spot fire information from satellites remains a “goal” of the USFS alongside real-time common operating picture technology. “I get that there are a lot of new tools,” she told one official. “I guess what we are saying is, pick the most urgent ones that you can implement today.”

About the author

Michael Kirby is managing editor with Federal Network, a credentialed news bureau on Capitol Hill that provides digital video and information services to news organizations across the web.

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