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Droning on and on: Success with prescribed fire

Drone ignitions may be a safer way to ignite prescribed fire while meeting the burning standards needed for restoration, according to a recent study from the USDA Forest Service. Drone ignitions could mitigate crew fatigue, concerns over escaped fire, and other hazards to help ensure that prescribed fire can be applied safely and frequently across landscapes.

Fire Management Officer Kerry Clark stands in front of a drone standing on its landing pad.
Fire Management Officer Kerry Clark discusses safety and other provisions prior to ignition of a prescribed fire using a drone. Research stands on the William B. Bankhead were selected for drone ignition testing and training. USDA Forest Service photo by Callie Schweitzer.

Prescribed fire continues to be a critical management tool for restoring and maintaining fire-adapted forested ecosystems. However, widespread, frequent use of prescribed fire can be a challenge due to climate change, increased wildland-urban interfaces, and public health and safety concerns.

A long-term forest restoration study on the William B. Bankhead National Forest in Alabama continues to add innovative knowledge about the use of prescribed fire. In February 2022, researchers trained and tested aerial ignition using a hexacopter drone and the IGNIS platform.

The study provided needed data on fuel loading and vegetation structure to determine eligibility for drone ignition. The drone programming established protective geofences and delineated ignition boundaries, and mission planning including ignition sphere spacing were adjusted during the burn.

The drone approach moderates several prescribed fire challenges: concern over escaped fire, due to the relocation of personnel interior ignition duties to other duties, positioning them best to respond. Other hazards, such as general crew fatigue, were also mitigated, allowing for a safer prescribed fire.

Fire behavior and fuel consumption were comparable to other burns conducted during the week by ground-level drip torch ignition, and our long-term monitoring of the vegetation response will continue. These prescribed fires reduce forest fuels, remove midstory trees, and create more open, healthy forest conditions.

Principal Investigators
Callie Schweitzer, Research Forester
Stacy Clark, Research Forester
4157 - Upland Hardwood Ecology and Management
Fire ecology and management in eastern broadleaf and Appalachian forests
Learning to live with fire: managing the impacts of prescribed burning on eastern hardwood value
Coproducing science on prescribed fire, thinning, and vegetation dynamics on a National Forest in Alabama
CompassLive Article
The Quest to Sustain White Oak Under Fire
Research Partners
Dan Dey, Northern Research Station
Kerry Clark, Bankhead National Forest
Allison Cochran, Bankhead National Forest
Jason Harris, Bankhead National Forest
Blake Addison, Bankhead National Forest
External Partners
Heather Alexander, Auburn University
Courtney Siegert, Mississippi State University
Justin Hart, University of Alabama
Yong Wang, Alabama A&M University
William Sutton, Tennessee State University