The massive wildfire raging on Alaska’s Kenai Penninsula is now being monitored by a drone aircraft called ScanEagle. The unmanned aircraft was launched by catapult on Friday to fly over the area and map fire boundaries and hot spots. It is flying its first mission over an Alaska wildfire in almost five years, after receiving permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last Monday. It was Friday morning before the last approvals and issues with restricted airspace were resolved and the plane allowed to fly.
The ScanEagle can fly at altitudes up to 22,000 feet, and can remain airborne for up to 20 hours. It has a wingspan of 10.2 feet and is 5.1 feet in length. The drone carries two different types of camera: one infrared, which shows the contrast of cool areas and heat areas, and a regular visual camera. The aircraft records a video that is analyzed and given to fire officials to analyze the fire and determine their next actions in fighting it.
Light rain fell over the Funny River wildfire last week, but was not sufficient to penetrate the forest canopy and soak the vegetation below. However, the humidity helped firefighters, as did the dropping of a southwest wind that had threatened to push the fire into residential areas. The soaking rain that everyone had been waiting for came on Saturday and nearly extinguished the blaze. 708 firefighters are on the raging Alaska fire, helped by the drone aircraft whose monitoring helps them monitor the fire perimeter as well as hot spots where the fire can flare up again. The wildfire, which is mostly within the 2,968-square-mile Kenai National Wildlife refuge, is said to now be 58 percent contained.
At the end of 2013 the FAA announced the selection of the state as one of six sites to test the use of drones in commercial and industrial use. The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, managed by the University of Alaska, received FAA clearance to begin flying operations. The test sites were originally intended to help the FAA identify gaps in the regulations that prohibit drone aircraft from flying in national airspace. The team had to get waivers from the Division of Forestry and the FAA before the unmanned plane could be used on the Alaska wildfire.
The last time the ScanEagle was used to map a wildfire was in 2009. Ever since then the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management had kept in touch with the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration. The center got notice from Homeland Security just before the Memorial Day weekend that permission might be given to use the drone in the fight against the Kenai Fire.
The Kenai Peninsula fire started on May 19. The cause remains unclear, but fire investigators are convinced that it was caused by humans, although they say they have eliminated a campfire as the source. It started just south of Funny River Road in a popular recreation area. The fire spread quickly, fueled by wind. Fire managers say it could continue burning into the summer. It is hoped that flying the drone aircraft over the Alaska Fire to monitor hot spots can keep it from raging out of control again.
By Beth A. Balen