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Drones with “dragon eggs” used to start prescribed burns

A forest manager is preparing a drone that will light fires as part of a prescribed burn.
A forest manager is preparing a drone that will light fires as part of a prescribed burn.(George Washington & Jefferson National Forest)
Updated: Apr. 6, 2021 at 6:42 PM EDT
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Botetourt County, Va. (WDBJ) - Each spring, fire managers across Virginia conduct “prescribed burns,” or planned forest fires meant to mimic natural fires which provide numerous benefits, including pest control, reducing hazardous fuels, and promoting future growth of healthy trees and wildlife.

While there are dozens of burns underway each spring, one caught our attention, not for the acreage burning or even the smoke plume, but rather how the fires were started.

Forest managers use a drone that drops balls with with combustible material to light prescribed...
Forest managers use a drone that drops balls with with combustible material to light prescribed burns.(George Washington & Jefferson National Forest)

Forest managers from the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest posted a tweet of a drone that is being used to safely ignite portions of the Bald Mountain prescribed burn in the northeast portion of Marshalltown in Botetourt Co.

Once airborne and in position, the drone drops the balls with glycol one by one toward the ground. The glycol mixes with a powder, igniting into flames and burning the grass.

Unlike helicopters and airplanes, unmanned drones can fly after dark, and in more dangerous, smoky conditions. The ping pong-like balls are programmed to only drop within a designated geographic area. In the event it loses a signal, the drones are programmed to return to a set launch point as to avoid unplanned fires.

A fire plan is created with points on a map representing where the balls will be dropped
A fire plan is created with points on a map representing where the balls will be dropped(George Washington & Jefferson National Forest)

According to the U.S. Forest Service, “contingency plans, additional personnel, and equipment are in place for any unexpected events.” Burn areas, including nearby roads and trails, will be temporarily closed for public safety while burns are active. Residents and travelers in the vicinity of prescribed burns may see or smell smoke.

Along with the Botetourt burn, several other prescribed burns are underway across Virginia this week including Wythe, Augusta, and Rockingham counties.

The US Forest Service works with area partners to conduct prescribed burns which provide numerous benefits in achieving diverse and healthy landscapes by:

  • Reducing hazardous fuels and protecting communities from wildfire
  • Minimizing the spread of pest insects and disease
  • Providing forage for game
  • Improving habitat for threatened and endangered species
  • Recycling nutrients back into the soil
  • Promoting the growth of trees, wildflowers, and other plants

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