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The Energy 202: The next wildfire season starts soon. The government wants to use drones to fight it.

with Paulina Firozi


Last summer, one of the many fires with which federal and local officials had to contend raged in the Umpqua National Forest in southwest Oregon, close to the California border.

During one flight over the fire in August, a Bureau of Land Management pilot saw something he later said “wasn’t supposed to be there.” A “spot fire” had broken out beyond the edge of the main blaze, likely set off by a windblown ember.

If the second fire, discerned through an infrared camera since smoke limited visibility to just 100 feet, wasn’t addressed quickly, it could threaten yet more property and lives.

But the pilot hadn’t spotted the spot fire from a helicopter or airplane. He was operating a drone.

That spot fire in Oregon was ultimately contained before it became an issue, according to a video produced by the Department of the Interior highlighting a success story, officials say, in the federal government’s effort to modernize fighting forest fires with a fleet of unmanned aircraft.

The BLM, a division within Interior, later estimated the early detection of the fire by the drone saved $50 million in land and infrastructure value that could have otherwise been lost.

“I think that is a pretty compelling example of how drones work,” Mark Bathrick, director of Interior’s Office of Aviation Services, said in an interview.

Increasingly, this is what the federal government expects its forest firefighting efforts to look like.

Last year, the Western United States experienced one of its worst wildfire season in years, with an area the size of Delaware burning within California alone. Those fires, along with a trio of devastating hurricanes that hit the opposite coast, made 2017 the costliest year on record for natural disasters in U.S. history.  

In response, the federal government relied on unmanned aircraft, which are increasingly cheaper to buy and deploy, more than ever to aid the efforts of firefighters on the ground. Meanwhile in Congress, lawmakers are frozen in a political stalemate over how to fix a system for funding firefighting efforts that both parties agree is broken.

Last year, Interior, which leads interagency efforts on unmanned aircraft outside the Pentagon, flew 707 drone missions on 71 wildfires.

“I had the opportunity to join our wildfire professionals last year and was able to test some of the technology that is now being used,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. “After seeing the capabilities, I know it will continue to make a big difference in firefighting.”

In total, the department conducted nearly 5,000 flights altogether for various purposes, including drawing maps, surveying wildlife and conducting search-and-rescue missions, according to a report published last month. That volume of flights is a marked increase from 2016, just one year prior, when Interior conducted 750 flights.

Right now, the federal government just uses small drones to surveil fires and aid firefighters on the ground, like BLM did in Oregon — not to actually extinguish them.

But that is a capability the federal government says it is working on. The goal: To deploy retardant-dumping helicopters capable of being flown either manned and unmanned, so firefighting efforts can continue around the clock. At night and in the early morning, darkness and low-lying smoke, respectively, obscure the views of firefighters above, often making missions too dangerous to do.

Another potential use, being tested at the University of Nebraska, is to use drones to start prescribed burns, potentially to control invasive species and prevent more dangerous, uncontrolled fires.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which crafts regulation for drone use, gives Interior more leeway than other government agencies outside the military, allowing the department’s unmanned pilots to fly beyond their line-of-sight in firefighting and search-and-rescue missions.

Interior currently only oversees its own drones. But last month, the department solicited bids for companies to fly drones over forest fires for longer-term data collection.

Right now, Interior is not replacing human pilots with drones, said Bathrick, instead providing “enhanced situational awareness that just didn't exist in the past.” But he added drones generally allow missions to be done “in one-seventh the time and at about one-tenth the cost.”

The falling cost of drone technology come just as the federal government faces shortfalls in funds for fighting forest fires.

As the law is currently written, the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Agriculture Department that works with Interior to manage fires, must take money from other parts of its budget to pay to put out flames during parched years when firefighting money runs dry. 

Because firefighting officials cannot tap traditional relief funds set aside for hurricanes and other disasters, they are stuck in a vicious loop, borrowing money meant for measures for fire prevention, like clearing underbrush.

House Republicans and some Democrats, led by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), have pushed forward legislation easing requirements for time-consuming environmental reviews on tree-thinning projects undertaken to prevent wildfires.

That measure passed the House in November, but some Senate Democrats along with environmental groups are concerned the legislation is a pretext for giving loggers easier access to public forests.


— Lease sale postponed: Zinke on Friday abruptly postponed an oil and gas lease sale of 25 parcels near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico until the department does a detailed analysis of 5,000 cultural sites, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports. “The department’s plan is part of a broader push to auction off a slew of leases near protected areas in the West, with auctions scheduled this month in Montana and Utah, and it remains unclear whether those events will be postponed, as well.”

— Meanwhile, the Alaska congressional delegation says Arctic refuge drilling is at least a decade away: "I remind people that just because we have the congressional permission" doesn't mean production in ANWR is imminent, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), according to the Anchorage Daily News. After four decades of effort on the part of Alaskan lawmakers, the GOP opened the refuge to oil and gas drilling as part of the recently passed tax cut bill. 

Elsewhere in ANWR news: The Natural Resources Defense Council’s political arm launched an ad on Friday targeting GOP lawmakers who voted to open the refuge to drilling. The six-figure ad campaign will target Pennsylvania Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, Ryan Costello and Patrick Meehan along with Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulson, The Hill reports.

— Door revolves: President Trump on Friday announced he would nominate Peter Wright, a lawyer for Dow Chemical, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Land and Emergency Management. Wright would, if confirmed, oversee toxic waste sites linked to his former company, per CNN.

Washington lawmakers and members of the Trump administration appeared on Sunday shows March 4 to discuss President Trump's aluminum and steel tariffs. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

— Steel yourself for steel tariffs: The president will sign into effect new steel and aluminum tariffs this week or the following week “at the latest," Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro said Sunday on CNN. And Navarro signaled there’s no plan to exempt countries from the tariffs. “As soon as you exempt one country, then you have to exempt another country and so it's a slippery slope," he said.

In case you missed it, read this stunning account from NBC News on how Trump’s “decision to launch a potential trade war was born out of anger at other simmering issues and the result of a broken internal process that has failed to deliver him consensus views that represent the best advice of his team.”

Meanwhile on Twitter, Trump continued to beat the drums of trade war, threatening to hammer European car companies with steep tariffs:


— They’re running: There is a growing number of scientists running for office in 2018, The Post’s Ben Guarino and Laurie McGinley report. Many of the researchers trading in mixing beakers for kissing babies have been recruited by 314 Action, a political action committee launched to support policymakers with scientific or technical backgrounds. The group, named for the first three digits of pi, describes itself as “the pro-science resistance" and has had 7,000 people respond to calls to run for office, and 400,000 donors who want to support candidates who back science-based policies.

Video shows floodwaters moving through roads and into houses on March 2 in the city of Quincy in the outskirts of Boston. (Video: Quincy Police Dept.)

— Century storm returns: For the second time in weeks, Boston was hit by a hundred-year storm. “In other words, impacts from climate change, which were supposed to wallop the area 80 years from now, are already menacing a region that is only beginning to talk about ways to protect itself,” The Post’s Darryl Fears writesAcross the East Coast, the deadly nor’easter paralyzed cities and towns and killed at least eight people, including some who “had tried in vain to take shelter from hurricane-force winds.”

— SUV boom is a bust to the climate : Rising incomes and lower gas prices are driving people to buy more sport-utility vehicles in some countries, the New York Times reports. “The ascent of S.U.V.s and crossovers is already slowing progress in reining in emissions from the world’s cars and trucks, major emitters of the gases that are warming the planet. Transportation accounts for an estimated 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with cars and trucks making up the biggest share.”

— Straws scrapped: The city of Malibu is just the latest to vote to ban or limit the use of plastic straws at restaurants. While leading organizations in the plastics industry agree with the aim of reducing straw use, they believe laws are not the right way to go, the New York Times reports. However, groups like the American Chemistry Council have "taken a softer approach to straw bans than it did with [plastic] bags" which have also been banned in cities across the country.


— Record-setting rigs: The number of oil rigs in the United States increased to 800 for the first time in nearly three years, Bloomberg News reports, as drillers have upped exploration “in an almost-unbroken streak since the beginning of November.” That jump, reported by the oil field services firm Baker Hughes on Friday, increased crude production in the country to a record of more than 10 million barrels a day.

— Corn wars, cont'd: Workers from oil refineries in about a dozen states are heading to Washington to lobby against the ethanol mandate. “The lobbying push organized by the United Steelworkers begins Tuesday with visits by 30 workers from more than a dozen independent merchant oil refineries in 11 states to discuss ‘the urgent need’ to overhaul" the EPA's biofuel policy that refiners say is hurting their industry, the Washington Examiner reported.

— Hmmm: A Cleveland State University communications professor published a harsh critique of a study from last year on ExxonMobil's past communication on climate change, which concluded the company had deceived the public on the issue. The professor, Kimberly Neuendorf, criticized the researchers for coding the company's statements on climate change themselves.

"Content analysis coding ought to be conducted with coders who are at arm’s-length with regard to the research, in order to maximize objectivity," she wrote, according to Legal NewsLine. Neuendorf did her study at the request of Exxon.



  • CERAWEEK energy industry leaders’ conference begins.

Coming Up 

  • The House Natural Resources Committee will hold an oversight hearing on Tuesday.  
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the future of fusion energy research on Tuesday.                     
  • The House Science, Space, Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the future of transportation fuels and vehicles on Wednesday.
  • The Cleantech Group holds a conference on biotech and sustainability on Wednesday.
  • The Blockchain in Energy Forum will be held on Thursday.
  • R Street, Texas Clean Energy Coalition and The American Conservative hold an event on “How market driven clean energy is transforming the Texas electric grid tickets” on Thursday.
A nor’easter is pounding the East Coast with heavy rain, strong winds and some snow. The storm is causing flooding along coastal areas of the Eastern Seaboard. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

— Watch the powerful nor’easter tear up the Atlantic coast this weekend: And when you're done, read The Post’s Angela Fritz for a timeline of the brutal storm.