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The drones are coming

Ashland City Council approved a request May 21 for the fire department to use drones with infrared cameras to monitor the city and watershed area for fire and illegal campers.

The drone will fly two days a week over city and park land using infrared technology to detect any suspicious activity and possible ignitions during the fire season.

The drone will not fly over any privately owned land unless the landowner permits it. No pictures are taken because the camera uses infrared technology. Only blobs of heat sources can be detected.

Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers said the system would be much more effective than the current foot patrols.

“We know right now that we’re not being as effective as we could be,” Chambers said.

An intergovernmental contract between the city and the county currently allows for watershed patrol by one Jackson County sheriff’s deputy who patrols the areas around the watershed two days a week in the fire season.

“With the foot patrols, we’re doing a really good job of patrolling certain corridors, but we’re not getting out to where people are camping ... there are areas that are difficult to get to. It’s steep, often full of brush, poison oak, ticks, other deterrents for foot patrols, especially for officers who are laden with a lot of heavy gear and it’s over 100 degrees on many days during the summer,” Chambers said.

The cameras can detect heat sources through heavy smoke and fly on a preprogrammed flight path, which will significantly improve fire scouting in dense smoke.

“It’s certainly a concern that when the valley is socked in, we can’t see anything up in the watershed, and a fire could develop and be 50 or 100 acres before anybody even knew it was there,” Chambers said.

With the current foot patrol, the person monitoring often stays inside the vehicle and drives around to cover more ground Chambers said.

“As we all know, the issue of wildfire is increasingly concerning to communities who are surrounded by forestland, and if anything like ours, are embedded in those forests,” Chambers said. “We’re in a new era where forest fires cease to be fires that start always in the forest and stay in the forest.”

In addition, the cameras would look for illegal campers, who have caused numerous fires around the region. He said people tend to camp in the forests near the city, which makes the potential for fire even greater. He said he has seen numerous camps with cut trees, excavations and piles of trash, including hazardous waste such as syringes, at past fires.

“I can’t even describe the truckloads and truckloads and dump-truck loads of trash that we’ve taken off the city and parks forest lands over the years,” Chambers said.

Ignition sources common in nearly all the camps he has seen include campfires, propane stoves, matches and cigarettes.

During his presentation, he showed pictures from about five fires that were caused by illegal campers.

“The consequences of fires can be devastating for our city, our economy and certainly for individual residents,” Chambers said.

The Ashland Police Department has agreed to investigate illegal campers. Councilor Rich Rosenthal asked what impact it would have on the police department considering Ashland’s population can nearly double in the tourist season.

“I think it’s an important partnership with the fire department and ... even though it is outside the city ... it is still in the best interest of the community for us to be involved,” said police Chief Tighe O’Meara. “It is a stretch of the resources, but it’s important, and I want to make sure we partner as much as we can with the fire department.”

Police are instructed to give a 24-hour notice to campers before taking any further action.

If fire is detected, then fire resources from either the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry, Ashland Fire and Rescue or all organizations will be dispatched depending on where the fire is.

Consultation is underway with local organizations such as the Rogue Valley Council of Governments for the drone and data collection. The idea is that information received by the drone would translate into a PDF map on a smartphone app so public safety officers would know where to go for investigations.

Chambers said there would be a short lag for data processing, but it hopefully would be recovered the same morning before the heat of the day.

Deputy Fire Chief David Shepherd is a certified drone pilot. The department has a drone that uses a regular camera. Chambers said the department has applied for a grant through the state to have its own infrared drone.

Chambers said the details of the program still need to be worked out.

Staff has recommended that $13,000 a year allocated for the watershed patrol program be used for the drone fire-detection service.

Chambers said climate change trends show that the catastrophic fires in California are predicted to move from south to north and from lower elevations to higher elevations. With that in mind, he said we need to expect more fires in Southern Oregon.

Discussions are underway to fly the drone over adjacent U.S. Forest Service land if it would fit into the budget.

The program is supported by both the Forest Lands Commission and the Wildfire Safety Commission.

The program was approved as a one-year pilot program.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.