Could drones be a big weapon against California wildfires?

Helicopter crews work to stamp out the Ferguson Fire as it burns in Yosemite in August.
Helicopter crews work to stamp out the Ferguson Fire as it burns in Yosemite in August. Los Angeles Times/TNS

After three of California’s biggest wildfires ever, this year will likely mark the worst fire season in state history. As first responders and firefighters are stretched beyond capacity, we need to focus on ways to improve response time and gather real-time information.

One way is to make sure that emergency responders have the most technically advanced tools available. It’s up to each department to select the best tools; next-generation helmets for some, rapid extinguishing technologies for others.

Drones are another tool to consider; with trained pilots, unmanned drones can operate in high temperatures, fly at night and in heavy smoke and get to the scene quicker than a fire engine.


The Interior Department flew nearly 5,000 drone missions over public land last year to minimize danger to human lives. One drone model drops flammable spheres to set controlled fires to reduce the spread of a wildfire.

Mark Bathrick, director of the department’s Office of Aviation Services, told The Wall Street Journal that drones in Oregon detected a fire before it was reported and responders extinguished the blaze before it became a threat. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, told a congressional hearing that drones are a great tool in remote and rugged terrain. More than 910 U.S. law enforcement, fire and emergency agencies have acquired drones, including several in California.

John Hidahl.jpg
John Hidahl

In El Dorado County, drones can be immensely helpful for fire prevention. We’re working to develop a countywide vegetation management ordinance to prevent fires from getting out of control, and the drones can quickly and cost-effectively conduct property inspections and identify hazards.

Regulators and local government officials should consider the benefits of drones. Local departments should explore partnerships and other avenues to ensure the latest technologies are at the ready for those on the front lines fighting these disasters.

John Hidahl, who represents District 1 on the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors, served on the board of the El Dorado County Fire Department for more than 30 years and worked at Northrop Grumman on its military drone program. He can be contacted at


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