DEEP Divisions Share New Technology to Identify Hotspots in Fire Response

THOMPSON – The eye in the sky soars overhead as radiant islands reveal themselves in stark contrast to the surrounding dark. Yellows and reds pulsate prominently against the gray of the road and the dense black of the forest.

The “islands” are fire “hotspots,” often indiscernible to the naked eye, and prevalent in drought conditions. They can burn underground and surface randomly, ignite vegetation unpredictably, and make fire suppression and mitigation especially challenging.

This particular “eye in the sky” is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), known commonly as a “drone,” owned and operated by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP)’s Emergency Response and Spill Prevention Division. The division has invested in solutions for rapidly assessing environmental emergencies, including—with the support of funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness grant program—licensing staff in a special technical services unit to pilot drones.

DEEP’s drone is primarily intended for use at hazardous materials incidents to give an overview of the scene to the incident commander and to provide real-time information on the status of otherwise inaccessible areas. It can take still images and video with an optical camera and an infrared camera. The Emergency Response and Spill Prevention Division has used the drone at several large mill fires which had the potential to release hazardous chemicals and airborne materials to the environment. Additionally, it has been used to find trapped pools of oil from a large spill which flowed into a river.

DEEP’s policy is to only use the drone where there is a severe threat to the environment or to human health/safety, for work related to environmental infrastructure improvement or protection, or for scientific/environmental research. Per Federal Aviation Administration regulations, DEEP does not fly its drone over people.

Recently, the division was kind enough to volunteer the services of its drone to support state and local First Responders at a wildfire in Thompson. The fire, first identified on July 27, covered 4-6 acres in a previously cleared subdivision that had regenerated with huckleberry and other organic matter. The initial response included approximately 100 municipal firefighters from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, 20 of whom were DEEP personnel. A containment line was established to secure a perimeter around the fire, requiring use of a bulldozer and more than 3,000 feet of hose.

Over the ensuing days, responders remained on scene, addressing stubborn fire spots that, due to the state’s current drought conditions, burned into the ground several inches and smoldered with the ability to reignite at a later time.

To aid in the effort to identify hotspots, DEEP Emergency Response and Spill Prevention Division Director Pete Zack volunteered the use of the division’s drone, which has a thermal imaging, or infrared, camera. The color rendered by an image indicates a potential hotspot- white is hot; black is cool; yellow is above 150 degrees Fahrenheit; red is above 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

On Wednesday, July 29, the drone, piloted by Emergency Response and Spill Prevention Division staff members Vince Long and Aaron Green, collected and sent real-time information to the incident commander on the ground, DEEP District Fire Control Officer Rich Schenk, to help firefighting crews gain a tactical advantage over the fire.

Schenk said that though his team on the ground already had a pretty good idea of where most of the hotspots might be from their previous days’ work knocking the fire down, the thermal imaging from the drone confirmed those areas, taking any remaining guesswork out. Schenk said the technology absolutely proved its worth in the field, and rattled off several ways it could benefit fire response in the future, from identifying access points for fires in hard-to-reach areas, to locating the nearest water source, to greatly reducing the need to physically put people in aircraft to gain aerial perspective- a much safer, cheaper option.

“It gives me as an incident commander another tool in the toolbox,” he said.

Both Schenk and Chris Martin, Director of DEEP’s Forestry Division, expressed their gratitude to Zack and his division for their willingness to help.

“This is a really great example of inter-unit, inter-division cooperation, with one division helping another to achieve its mission,” Martin said.

Green, who provided observation of what the drone was picking up visually, said sharing the technology where feasible makes sense.

“We believe this technology can benefit many different aspects of DEEP’s mission,” Green said. “Since we already have the equipment and trained staff in-house it makes both practical and fiscal sense to offer this service to other DEEP programs.”

The drone is being used in support of other DEEP missions, too, Green noted. It has been used to conduct photo-mapping for a culvert improvement project at Barn Island Wildlife Area, and is also assisting DEEP’s Water Monitoring Program on planning for two research projects, one involving overflights of cyanobacteria blooms in lakes and another looking at vegetation types within embayments along the Connecticut shoreline.

The cause of the Riverside Thompson fire, Martin said, has been determined to be an unattended campfire. The fire has received some heavy rain over short durations over the past two weeks, though there are still internal smoldering hot spots, and the fire is being monitored until significant rain extinguishes those hot spots.

Going forward, drought conditions continue in Connecticut, and with record numbers enjoying outdoor activities this summer, Martin stresses that people need to double their efforts to carefully monitor and extinguish campfires and other outdoor recreational burning. Unattended campfires or other fires can easily become a significant fire, spreading across multiple acres rapidly, and requiring the deployment of multiple resources.

“Make sure any fire you’re putting out is cold and damp to the touch- stir it up and soak it, and make sure it’s completely out before you leave it,” he said.