I suppose this could be considered my first 'real post' on the forum, but I've known about this since last year, and it's too damn cool (hot?) not to share. Also, I tend to get really wordy on stuff like this, and my brain plays Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to get from thought to thought, so, I apologize in advance for the rambling you are about to behold.
A little lead-in...
I'm an interpreter (naturalist) at a park. A lot of what I do is engaging the public to teach them them about our resources, yes, but, more importantly, to get them passionate and curious about the natural world. The other chunk of my work is natural resource management. One of the neatest things I get to do is help with prescribed fires. In my organization, we're primarily seeking to restore the pre-settlement fire ecology (Wikipedia has a pretty neat article on Fire Ecology
. And, suppressing fires over extended periods of time is why the American West/Southwest have such hideous wildfires). A big bonus is that by lighting these fires, we're preventing fires. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but, think about it... In a deciduous forest (we primarily have oak/hickory forest), what do the trees do every autumn? They suck the chlorophyll into their branches and trunks, which lets their leaves show the remaining pigments, which is really pretty for about a week until a stiff breeze or hard rain knocks them loose. They drop.
This happens every year, year after year. Over time, you get a layer cake of leaf litter and twigs (or, in coniferous forest, pine straw, which is infinitely more flammable). In other words, it's a tinderbox waiting for a spark. With the long history of fire suppression in some areas (and subsequent buildup of thick fuel layers), one hopes that 'spark' is not a lightning bolt, a carelessly-tossed cigarette, or an ember from a campfire that someone didn't fully extinguish. PSA: douse your campfire/cooking fire until smoke isn't coming out, anymore. Smoke marks the potential to reignite, sometimes hours or days after you've left. You wouldn't want to upset Smokey, would you? I mean, look at him!
"Hey!" I hear you say. "Why is this in the Tech Talk section?"
Because drones, that's why.
Typically, prescribed burns, whether for ecological reasons, wildfire prevention reasons, or both, are ignited by humans. On the ground. It's exhausting work. The facility I work at has some pretty steep hills with loose rocks (which would be considered child's play by folks who burn further south, in the Ozark Mountains). At 5' 1", I'm always the shortest person on the burn crew, which gives me the benefit of a lower center of gravity when traversing the slopes. This is somewhat offset, however, by the fact that we are wearing supply backpacks and/or full CamelBaks, thick boots, and hardhats. I won't count the Nomex shirts as an encumbrance - which is good, because real life doesn't have a Fast Travel option - but, we're also carrying driptorches to ignite the burn unit along our fire lines (search on YouTube for 'ring fire ignition', there are some pretty cool top-down time lapses showing how it's done).
That sucker is filled with a mixture of diesel and gasoline. There's a flow control valve on the 'stem', and that flow comes out over a wick flame at the end. The dribble of liquid fuel actually hits the ground before igniting, which is kind of neat to watch. The driptorch also weighs 16-20 lbs when full. That might not sound like a lot, but that liquid sloshes back and forth, you have to hold the torch away from your body (I have a friend and colleague with lots of burn training and experience that, on one occasion, didn't realize a little fuel had dripped onto her jeans, and wound up with third-degree burns, though thankfully in a very small area), and the terrain can be treacherous.
On the ground, igniting a prescribed fire takes hours. Even during textbook simple burns, you have to be mindful of slipping, stepping in a hole, getting your gear caught on something. It can be extremely dangerous, and it is exhausting.ENTER THE DRONES
Have a giggle all you want at all the talk of balls dropping (I know I did), but, that is freaking awesome
In August of 2016, NIMBUS Lab took their drone into the field, making it, "The first UAS to ignite prescribed fires from the air."
How freaking awesome is that!?
It's much safer, much faster, and much less expensive. It's like the difference between you and your crew walking the Oregon Trail, winding over and through mountains and streams, over rocks, with one wagon on fire that you have to keep
on fire, versus just playing Oregon Trail on your computer, where nobody actually
dies of dysentery.
TLDR: Igniting prescribed fires by hand is exhausting, dangerous, expensive, time-consuming, and potentially flesh-consuming, and I for one welcome our new fiery ball-dropping overlords.