Monongahela National Forest adopts UAS for Prescribed Burns

Ramshorn Prescribed Burn

Photo gallery of the Ramshorn Prescribed Burn. View the full album on our Flickr page.

Just like the Jetsons? Not quite.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s just science.

In early April, fire managers on the Monongahela National Forest were preparing to conduct a routine prescribed burn at the 1,005-acre Ramshorn project area in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. But this day was different. This time, the plan included the use of an unmanned aerial system or UAS — more commonly called a drone — for aerial ignition.

“We jumped at the opportunity to try a UAS for prescribed burning,” said District Ranger Jack Tribble. “Ramshorn is a good location to try something new. It’s fairly remote, with wide open views on top, making it ideal for staging and observation. I hope we can continue using this technology in the future.”

Monongahela National Forest staff have used helicopters for aerial ignition in the past. However, recently the Forest Service has been using UAS successfully on National Forest System lands across the United States. The use of drones simplifies prescribed burning operations and reduces risk. It gives fire managers the ability to plan a precise ignition sequence to control fire behavior and meet the prescribed burn objectives.

At the Ramshorn prescribed burn, the UAS was used in conjunction with staff using drip torches and other firing devices.

John Fry, assistant fire management officer for Monongahela National Forest and burn boss at Ramshorn, said, “When the Ramshorn unit is ignited by hand, it takes two days to complete the burn. With the additional support of the UAS, we were able to ignite the unit early, allowing smoke to disperse throughout the day, and complete the project in one day.”

UAS Coming in for a Landing

Watch the UAS land.

The UAS used at Ramshorn was four feet wide, ran on batteries and was operated by a qualified pilot. The UAS dropped small biodegradable spheres (brand name “Dragon Eggs”) containing potassium permanganate on the project area. On the pilot’s command, the drone injected the spheres with glycol one at a time, beginning a chemical reaction that caused the sphere to ignite as it was dropped on grasses or other fuels on the ground. Each flight lasted about 10 to 15 minutes before the drone returned for refilling and fresh batteries.

20210406 UAS Aerial Ignition

Watch the UAS drop the spheres.

The UAS was piloted by Jon Freeman and pilot trainee Brian Okarski from the San Juan National Forest in Colorado. They brought a pickup truck full of supplies and technology with them, including iPads, computers, a generator, batteries and an even smaller drone used to record video of the project area at the end of the day. Both pilots emphasized the safety benefits of using these kinds of aircraft to conduct operations in treacherous terrain that may have once been done with helicopters.

The future has arrived. And while it looks a little different than The Jetsons predicted, the use of unmanned aerial systems is likely to spread to a National Forest or Grassland near you very soon.

Note: The FAA and the U.S. Forest Service consider all UAS, regardless of size or weight, to be aircraft. All UAS flown on National Forest System lands must comply with FAA and U.S. Forest Service laws, regulations and policies.