CAL FIRE AND some Bay Area fire departments are increasingly utilizing unmanned aerial resources that use artificial intelligence, hazardous materials capabilities, thermal imaging and digital mapping tools to help respond to a variety of emergencies.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said in June during a stop at Cal Fire’s Grass Valley Air Attack Base, about 65 miles northeast of Sacramento, that Cal Fire had been bulking up its technology by modifying existing aerial resources and investing in new types of drones.

Four of the drones Con Fire uses in its firefighting work are pictured. Clockwise from top left are a DJI Matrice 30 drone, Autel EVO 640 T thermal drone, DJI Mavic II drone and DJI Mavic Air drone. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News/Catchlight Local)

“In just five years, California’s wildfire response has seen a tech revolution. We’re enlisting cutting-edge technology in our efforts to fight wildfires, exploring how innovations like artificial intelligence can help us identify threats quicker and deploy resources smarter,” Newsom said.

Drones powered by artificial intelligence can help predict wildfires and detect them early, analyze data, predict movement and progress, and relay information in real time to firefighters on the ground, according to Cal Fire.

An Autel Evo II drone in action in Antioch on June 21, 2023. Con Fire has several different drones it uses for specific situations. A recent addition to the fleet can be flown in hazmat situations where special safety features are necessary to prevent igniting flammable gases. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News/Catchlight Local)

Meanwhile, the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District is expanding its drone program to include a type that can fly in more extreme conditions, including hazmat situations that require safety features to prevent igniting flammable gases.

That marks the fifth type of drone the fire district will utilize, including training drones, in a growing effort to make drones a regular firefighting tool.

A critical tool for firefighters

Assistant Fire Chief Chris Bachman with the Contra Costa County district has been expanding the program since 2019. He said the drones have provided a critical tool for firefighters, such as in Antioch in June, when a fire at a vacant warehouse required attacks from multiple hoses.

“The thermal imaging piece was very helpful as we had three, sometimes four aerial streams,” Bachman said.

Drone technology provides real-time thermal images of a four-alarm fire that engulfed an abandoned warehouse in Antioch on June 19, 2023. The red spots in the thermal reading helped Con Fire crews see the area of the fire that water streams weren’t reaching, enabling them to better focus their attack. (Contra Costa Fire Department via Bay City News)

He said there was between 850-1,100 gallons of water flowing into the building every minute for about three hours, which obscured the view of the interior fire.

The $25,000 DJI Matrice 30 drone is equipped with a spotlight and a microphone, which the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District says would make it easier to communicate with someone during a search or rescue incident. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News/Catchlight Local)

The new device is a Matrice 30 Enterprise drone made by DJI. It is equipped with a thermal imaging, zoom camera and has weight capacity to mount other add-ons. At a cost of $25,000, the drone represents a major advancement of the district’s drone program, according to Bachman. Its hazmat-safe capabilities allow it to fly in situations in which a small spark could ignite flammable gases, as well as heavy wind and rain.

Bachman said the district could have utilized the drone during a search-and-rescue operation when a series of winter rainstorms moved through the region, when high winds tested the existing drones’ limits.

“We would put a drone in the air, and we really lucked out that it wasn’t pouring down rain, because that drone was able to provide us good information about the current rescue situation that we were dealing with and great intel. But moving forward, it’s going to be nice to know that we have a platform now, that, even if it is raining, we can still put it near and not have to worry about that drone coming down,” Bachman said.

Con Fire Assistant Chief Chris Bachman uses a joystick as he demonstrates the ability of one of the fire department’s drones to automatically land at the exact site from where it took off with just the touch of a button. The department currently has 18 trained drone pilots. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News/Catchlight Local)

The Contra Costa County program started with six firefighters being trained on smaller drones and has grown to about 18 pilots currently in the drone program.

The San Francisco Fire Department and Sonoma Valley Fire District have also created dedicated drone units that can be utilized in cliff and surf rescues, hazmat incidents, incident mapping and other situations.