Menlo fire district drones capture wildfire damage


Drone pilots from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and from sheriff's offices in the East Bay have been documenting the damage from wildfires in ways more efficient and effective than in 2017, after the fire that destroyed parts of Santa Rosa.

In and around the city of Redding and other parts of Shasta County, the Carr Fire has caused eight deaths and destroyed nearly 1,600 structures, according to news reports.

Residents, insurance companies and government agencies have been able to survey the damage from Redding's official website, where an interactive online map displays links to photos taken by drones flying over the fire-damaged areas.

By selecting a pushpin from the map, which currently has about 60 pushpins, people can access a high-resolution, panoramic view of a particular area from about 200 feet up, with the ability to look around in any direction and zoom down to treetop level.

This catalog of images is the result of sophisticated drone software and skilled assistance from technical staff working in Redding City Hall, fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park fire district said. "Those people were very polished and tech savvy," he said of the Redding staff.

At sites of fire-damaged homes, the drone first took a panoramic photo, then flew a programmed grid pattern, capturing video while going back and forth above the area in the manner of a tractor plowing a field, Schapelhouman said. The result, he wrote in a statement, was "a zoom-in, zoom-out, 360-degree, stitched-together aerial mosaic." The Menlo fire district's drones were in use Aug. 3 through Aug. 5.

Menlo Park drone pilots also examined the aftermath of the Santa Rosa fire in 2017 in a similar manner, but having help from Redding City Hall this time around allowed pilots to concentrate on flying and leave data handling to the experts, Schapelhouman said. The result, he said, was a collaboration and partnership that led to more efficient and focused use of pilots' time.

The drone users encountered just one instance of a civilian trying to use a drone to enter the airspace above the damaged areas. That drone was detected because fire district pilots use software that alerts them to such attempts, Schapelhouman said.

That drone never actually had a chance to enter the restricted airspace. Some drones sold to civilians, including this one, Schapelhouman said, are equipped with software that prevents them from flying in areas digitally cordoned off by temporary flight restrictions, one of which was in effect during the mapping operations.

Next steps

Since establishing a drone crew in 2014, the Menlo Park district has been a pioneer in the use of these aircraft by a firefighting agency. Over the years, Menlo Park pilots have flown over hazardous materials incidents, flooded areas and water rescues in addition to active fires and burned areas.

A next step, coming later this year for the Menlo Park district's 17-member drone operations team, is a specialized van for its aircraft and operators, Schapelhouman said.

The district is also talking with the state's Department of Transportation about constructing a drone "nest" on a pedestal inaccessible to the public, but in the vicinity of the Dumbarton Bridge that connects Menlo Park to Fremont.

The idea, Schapelhouman said, is to launch the drone when there's an accident on the bridge so as to give first responders a view of the situation. "It would let us gauge the depth of the response a lot better than a phone call through a dispatcher (reporting) what somebody has said," Schapelhouman said.

The Dumbarton Bridge, he said, is a specific challenge in that there are "a lot of wrecks out there"; it's located over water; it's not regularly patrolled by law enforcement; and once committed, firefighting vehicles have to drive all the way across, turn around in Fremont and drive back, a trip that can last between 30 and 90 minutes.


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