Mark Bathrick, Director, Office of Aviation Services, US Department of the Interior

Jen Boyer 2020 Q4

DOI UAS have conducted nearly 1,800 flights supporting wildland fire operations this year.

As the incredibly intense and destructive 2020 wildfire season begins to wind down, HAI got the chance to ask Mark Bathrick, the director of the Office of Aviation Services for the US Department of the Interior (DOI), how the season went and what next year may hold.

ROTOR: This fire season was certainly one for the books. How were DOI helicopters and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) assets used and how did they make the most impact?

Bathrick: DOI is committed to deploying all resources and technology to protect human health and safety. The department continues using the drone fleet during wildfire response operations. So far this year and despite challenges associated with COVID-19, DOI has conducted fuel management treatments on nearly 1 million acres, putting us ahead of our 10-year average.

Commercially contracted helicopters continued to play a vital role in wildland firefighting in 2020. A critical part of the annual preparation for the fire year is the inspection of aircraft for proper equipment and conditions and the training and evaluation of pilots prior to the contract start.

Working closely with our industry and interagency partners, the Office of Aviation Services (OAS) developed COVID-19 sensitive travel and inspection risk assessments and protocols that enabled us to exceed fire-year readiness requirements while also mitigating the risk of COVID-19 to our employees, commercial vendors, interagency partners, and the communities we visited to perform the inspections.

Our UAS continue to be used across the country in support of wildland fire operations.

A firefighter launches a UAS during a training exercise.

Were there any surprises, either good or bad, in how helicopter and UAS assets were used?
The use of aerial-ignition UAS helps our teams conduct burnout operations during smoky conditions and at night.

Given that we’re seeing longer, more intense fire seasons, what are you hoping to bring to the 2021 fire season?
For 2021, OAS plans to meet the DOI bureaus’ requests to train more UAS operators to support wildland firefighting efforts.

How did UAS technology support firefighting this season?
DOI bureaus continue to use our UAS fleet during wildfire response operations. DOI UAS have conducted 1,793 wildland firefighting support flights in 2020. Of those, 903 were used in the aerial-­ignition mission. 

Crews are still currently deployed supporting many fires across the western US, including the following:

  • The Pine Gulch and Grizzly Creek Fires in Colorado provide examples of using UAS to minimize personnel risk and achieve management objectives.
  • The Pine Gulch Fire (139,000 acres) in the Book Cliffs north of Grand Junction, Colorado, was burning in steep and often inaccessible terrain. DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and interagency UAS personnel were tasked with building an indirect fire line utilizing the Ignis 2 Plastic Sphere Dispenser (PSD) payload. UAS crews worked at night to ignite ridge tops and create a backing fire, which ultimately assisted in containing the main fire. Crews worked for 18 days and performed 161 flights that dropped 60,000 plastic spheres.
  • The Grizzly Creek Fire (32,431 acres) burned near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in August, also in steep and inaccessible terrain. The BLM Unaweep Wildland Fire Module was assigned to this incident on Aug. 20 and was tasked with protecting the Glenwood Springs watershed. The crew utilized UAS to provide situational-­awareness, infrared, and aerial-ignition services in support of incident objectives. Aerial ignition with UAS was of particular importance because of the rocky terrain in the area: 1,000 plastic spheres were dropped in an effort to protect Bair Ranch and other critical infrastructure. The Unaweep Module conducted 23 flights during this successful operation.

What new developments are on the horizon to increase UAS support?
Additional training courses are planned over the winter to increase the number of personnel who can be deployed to support the 2021 fire season.

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