Great Balls of Fire
U of I master’s student first to pilot fire-deploying drone to combat wildfire
Nathan Wierwille recently used a drone to drop exploding ping pong balls ahead of a wildfire in an attempt to help contain the blaze.
By doing so, the University of Idaho master’s student became the first person to pilot an “unmanned aerial system plastic sphere dispenser” to deploy fire on a federally managed wildfire near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Wildland firefighters have long used “burnout operations,” creating lower intensity, more controlled fires to burn up fuels in advance of a wildfire. But they usually had to do it in person or by helicopter.
“Now that I see what drones are capable of – there is so much more safety, effectiveness and cost savings to this method,”Nathan Wierwille, MNR student and BLM Engine Captain
Wierwille, who works as an engine captain with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Arizona said drone technology has the potential to make this technique more effective, cheaper and safer.
“For my whole career, fire suppression meant chopping down trees and putting out flames. Now that I see what drones are capable of – there is so much more safety, effectiveness and cost savings to this method,” Wierwille said. “It’s a new system right now, but in the long run it could save helicopter flights, a twisted knee or a hurt back.”
Wierwille is a longtime wildland firefighter and student in U of I’s online Master of Natural Resources in Fire Ecology and Management (MNR-Fire) program, which allows him to take classes remotely while continuing to work in Arizona.
He learned how to operate the drone through a special 80-hour training, as well as an additional 40 hours of training on the dispenser with the BLM. The experience was not only part of his job but also part of his master’s studies at U of I. Together with his U of I advisors, Penny Morgan and Leda Kobziar, Wierwille tailored his program to explore the implications and applications of drone technology to fire management.
“Since the beginning of the MNR-Fire program, I’ve been amazed at how readily our students combine what they learn in their courses to advance a wide range of applications of science and technology to help their agencies and home units solve real wildland fire challenges,” said Kobziar, an associate professor in the College of Natural Resources and the program’s director. “We’re very proud to have leaders like Nathan.”
The drone Wierwille operated carries plastic ping pong balls that contain potassium fermagnite powder. The device then injects the balls with another chemical that is similar to antifreeze once it’s in position, creating a chemical reaction that starts a delayed combustion. The fire starts about 20 seconds after the drone creates a chemical reaction, giving the balls time to fall to the ground.
The drone system has many advantages, Wierwille said. It gives the operator a bird’s-eye view of the landscape and can access many places that might be difficult or dangerous for firefighters – steep hillsides and heavily timbered areas. It is also able to see through smoke with an infrared camera. He said the first deployment to the Maroon Fire in the Coconino National Forest was particularly hazardous since it was a former testing area for artillery, and there was potential for unexploded ordnance.
Master of Fire
Wierwille grew up in the birthplace of Smokey Bear: the town of Captain, New Mexico. He worked five seasons on the Smokey Bear Hotshots crew and two seasons with the Bonneville Hotshots of Salt Lake City, Utah, before becoming an engine captain with the BLM.
He heard about the online Master of Natural Resources program from another hotshot firefighter and graduate, Darcy McDaniel, who was able to advance her career as a regional fire planner after completing her degree.
“[The MNR program] is about as good as it gets. I’ve been able to design and create program to suit what interests me.”Nathan Wierwille, MNR student and BLM Engine Captain
Wierwille enjoyed working with his advisors and building his career while he continues to work.
“It’s about as good as it gets,” he said. “I’ve been able to design and create program to suit what interests me.”
Morgan, now a professor emerita, first developed the online fire courses that are now taught in 35 states and five countries. She said Wierwille’s experience illustrates the purpose of the program.
“Our online fire courses were created to help managers address their professional education needs, jump-start their careers, critically think about fire science they can use and strengthen their communication skills,” she said. “Engaging current and future leaders in our courses helps all of us learn together. We explore science that managers can use.”
Article by Sara Zaske, College of Natural Resources
Published September 2019