Crews on the wildfire in the northwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park received help from an emerging wildfire technology this week: A drone.
An unmanned aircraft system was used Monday on the Bacon Rind fire, which has burned more than 2,000 acres in the park and on the Lee Metcalf Wilderness south of Big Sky.
Jeff Gildehaus, a fire spokesman, said it was the first drone to be used on fires in both Yellowstone National Park and the Custer Gallatin National Forest, and that it did work normally done by manned aircraft — producing photos, perimeter mapping and infrared data showing the fire’s hottest spots.
“It’s definitely a huge advantage in terms of reducing exposure to hazards for firefighters,” Gildehaus said.
The drone was operated by Belgrade-based Bridger Aerospace, one of four companies contracted through the Department of the Interior to respond on-demand to fires and other emergencies. The contract started this year and the company’s drone team was deployed to its first wildfire in July, when it was sent to the Martin fire in Nevada.
Since then, the crew has been all over, said Kurt Friedemann, vice president of Bridger Aerospace. Next came another fire in Nevada, then one along the Canadian border in Washington and another in Washington.
The return to Montana came this Monday with the Bacon Rind fire, and after a day there they were sent to the Monument and Wigwam fires, burning southwest of Ennis. If fire activity is slow, Friedemann said, they expect to be sent to fires in northwestern Montana.
“They’ve been out almost constantly since they started,” Friedemann said. “I don’t think anyone was quite sure how popular we would be.”
He said the assignments closer to home are nice because staff can switch out, providing a break to those who have been on the road for a long time. It also provided them a chance to swap parts — a new wing had to be delivered to Ennis this week.
The machine that’s been traveling the country with the crew is called a Silent Falcon. It’s a fixed-wing craft with an electric motor, about 6 feet long with a wingspan of 14 feet.
Gildehaus said the drone flew at about 11,000 feet in altitude — well above where helicopters normally fly. He said it shot some infrared photos, which shows where the fire’s hottest parts are. It also provided video of the fire. Gildehaus said they were able to pull up the information on an iPad while the drone was in the air.
“It gives you real-time information,” Gildehaus said.
The Bacon Rind fire hasn’t been terribly active. It was estimated at 2,045 acres Wednesday afternoon.
Size estimates held steady on the Wigwam and Monument fires as well. The Monument fire was estimated at 6,613 acres Wednesday. The Wigwam fire was estimated at 4,191 acres with 75 percent containment.