It was dark outside, but Dusty Kavitz could see the flameless fire.
Kavitz – who is based in the Buffalo office of the U.S Forest Service – was working with wildland firefighters in northern California in 2021 to fight the Dixie fire, one of the largest wildfires in American history.
He was surveying the fire looking for hotspots – warmer areas that could reignite with a shift in wind – when he spotted one invisible to the naked eye.
The catch? Kavitz was flying an unmanned aerial drone with infrared vision.
“I walked someone into a fire that they couldn’t see at night,” he said in early May, standing near Grouse Mountain surrounded by drones that the Forest Service uses for wildland firefighting and resource management work.
Kavitz is an unmanned aerial systems program manager with the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service. He flies drones for a living and embodies the shift toward unmanned aviation and advanced technology that has spread rapidly through the agency in the past decade.
And on top of that, the Bighorn National Forest is on the cutting edge of using the new drone technology, with five qualified pilots in the forest and more to come.
Drones reduce risk, have ‘endless uses,’ and save taxpayers money, Kavitz said.
But the biggest advantage of drone use to fight fires and improve resource management is that it “reduces risk by taking manned aviation out of the air,” he said.
For projects that don’t require a manned pilot to fly the route – such as for lighting certain backburns or evaluating streams in remote locations – drones can be used.
Take, for example, searching for hotspots. Kavitz said that sending 15 firefighters to search for hotspots could take the better part of an afternoon, whereas sending a drone with an infrared camera could be quicker and safer.
“The uses are endless,” Kavitz said. “This is an awesome tool to be able to hone in our data accuracy for resource management, to use in fire operations and for prescribed burns.”
And drones are cheaper to fly, saving taxpayer money. While each fully equipped American-made drone can cost up to $100,000, using a drone is much less expensive than flying a manned aircraft.
Still, Kavitz stressed that drones are merely a supplement to manned aviation.
“There is a necessity and need for manned aviation on almost every fire,” he said. “We will never be able to replace someone in the air. This is a tool to help reduce the risk and reduce costs.”
Washington, D.C., has supported drone technology in the Forest Service since 2016, and the agency created full-time staff positions for drone technicians in 2020.
Now, many wildland firefighting crews are equipped with and trained on drones.
Kavitz said that drones are now often an “instant request” when a crew gets to a fire, and qualified crews keep drones with them as part of their kit, “just like a chainsaw.”
Drones have been used in the Bighorn National Forest to light prescribed burns and do natural resource management work.
After the Crater Ridge fire in the northern part of the Bighorn National Forest in 2021, forest scientists had concerns about sediments impacting fish habitat in a nearby stream.
Whereas it would have taken hours for someone to hike into that area and do an assessment, the drone was able to capture video that a hydrologist was then able to view. The water looked clean.
Kavitz gave other examples. After high winds caused a blowdown near Powder River Pass, Kavitz flew a drone to observe how many trees were impacted by the wind.
Drones have also been used to light prescribed burns in the area around Grouse Mountain, to reduce fire risk to the municipal watershed.
Agency pilots can even fly in the Cloud Peak Wilderness with special permission from Forest Service leadership.
The Forest Service and other federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management are only buying American-made drones after President Donald Trump signed an executive order in January 2021 that prevented taxpayer dollars from being used to procure drones made by countries deemed foreign adversaries, such as China.
At one point, the Forest Service had a number of drones made by the Chinese company DJI, but those drones are being filtered out of the program, Kavitz said.
Instead, the primary drones that the Forest Service flies are the Alta-X, designed and built by Freefly Systems in Woodinville, Washington, and the Switchblade-Elite Tricopter, built by Vision Aerial in Bozeman, Montana.
Both drones fold down into a box and can carry infrared and normal cameras. The large Alta-X drone can also carry a device that drops “dragon eggs” that can light fires on the forest floor for prescribed burns.
The machine – called an “Igneous” – is attached to the bottom of the drone and can drop hundreds of balls of potassium permanganate injected with glycol into specific locations. Again, risk to personnel goes down, while the drone can start burns in locations that humans might not be able to easily access.
The drones can fly 20 to 25 minutes per flight, and most drone teams are equipped with six sets of batteries to keep the drone in the air all day long.
“My motto is ABC – always be charging,” Kavitz said.
While the training to get qualified to fly a drone is extensive, it is much less than the training needed to fly a manned aircraft. That makes it easier for members of the Forest Service with other day jobs – such as a hydrologist or a wildland fire module captain – to also get trained to fly a drone.
After getting a basic commercial license through the FAA, aspiring pilots complete a number of online classes before a two-week flight school in which they learn the ins and outs of flying drones either on fires or for natural resource management. After getting trained, pilots have to complete a certain number of takeoffs and landings every 90 days to stay qualified.
Nowadays, training pilots is a big part of Kavitz’s job.
Kavitz first got a license to fly drones in 2017. Pretty soon he went all in on learning about and getting trained on drone systems within the BLM and the Forest Service.
“It’s one of the fastest-growing aviation industries in the world, and I saw the writing on the wall and saw that it was a great opportunity to learn something new,” he said.
Working with the Forest Service and other agencies, Kavitz has helped fly drones in Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, California, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Colorado and, of course, Wyoming.
When friends joke with him that he gets to fly drones for a living, Kavitz gets serious.
“You wanna see my toy?” he said, pointing to the five-foot wingspan of an Alta-X drone sitting on an orange landing pad. “I wouldn’t really call that a toy.”