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This Squamish man spent the summer looking for wildfire hotspots

In the aftermath of active BC wildfires, Justin Perry piloted drones equipped with thermal imaging to search for potential fires not visible to the naked eye.
Squamish's Justin Perry, 29, was searching for the heat this summer, but not in a find-the-beach kind of way.

Perry, chief pilot with Stinson Aerial Services Inc was on contract with the BC Wildfire Service this fire season flying drones over areas where wildfires had recently occurred, looking for hotspots.

A spokesperson for BC Wildfire told The Chief that drones are among the many tools that the provincial body utilizes to conduct thermal imaging scans; helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft may also be used.

A pilot program was conducted in 2020 to assess how the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, or drones) could help with planning wildfire response activities, assessing areas facing high wildfire risks, and planning and conducting fuel management projects.

"The BC Wildfire Service continues to use vendors to conduct drone reconnaissance and mapping flights. Drones have been primarily used for thermal imaging and perimeter mapping," the spokesperson said.

Perry's drone is a DJI equipped with a  thermal imaging camera.

"Basically, we are letting them know the presence or absence of fires. We usually come in after the main mop up, after the crews have gone in there," he said, adding that when fires can be seen with the naked eye, his services aren't needed.

"With the technology we are using, we can see fires that are invisible to the naked eye," he said. "If there are hotspots under the ground and the temperature rises and the humidity drops, they can flare up again — they can cause fires again. With us, we are making doubly sure the fires are out."

This was Perry's second summer doing wildfire work. The first time was in 2018 during that intense fire season. That year, 2,117 fires scorched 1,354,284 hectares of land, surpassing the previously held record of hectares burned from 2017 (over 1.2 million hectares).

This fire season, among other places, Perry was sent to Quesnel, Vancouver Island, Prince George, Horsefly Lake, Penticton and other spots in the Interior. All told, he worked 65 nights between 2018 and this summer.

His shifts started at sunset and he and his coworkers worked through the night — with the help of several thermoses of coffee. There are a few reasons the job is done at night.

"There's no air traffic in the vicinity," Perry said, adding that the contractors have permission from Transport Canada and wildfire authorities to fly in the airspace.

The spokesperson for BC Wildfire Service reiterated to The Chief that proper protocols are in place for co-ordinated drone and aircraft operations. Measures are also in place within restricted airspace to ensure the safety of all staff involved in wildfire responses.

Another reason for working at night is that the thermal cameras look for temperature differences and there is more of a contrast between hot and cold at night.

"[At night] the ground starts to cool off, but the fires do not. Usually, they are the same temperature," Perry said. "Our accuracy improves as a result of this."

The crew gets dropped off — sometimes by helicopter, other times they are driven in — with their gear and tents to work overnight.

The drones have a range of one to three kilometres.  With the data crews collect, they are able to make very accurate maps of where the hotspots are.

"The idea is that the wildfire guys can use the maps, walk around and put them on their phones — they are georeferenced. They are able to walk right up to the fires that they may not be able to see, but then it narrows down the area that they have to look significantly."

Perry has his pilot's licence, which he earned through Glacier Air, and he went to BCIT for forestry.

"So this was kind of a nice combination or meshing of the two," he said.

When a 'hotspot' is not a fire

Perry said he has seen lots of wildlife while working and once momentarily thought a doe and her fawn were a fire when he spotted them with the drone.

"The thermal camera operates on the basis of temperature.... One night we were flying, and I was training a new guy, and I said, 'Oh, there's a hotspot about 100 metres away, let's go look it on the ground'... we flew the drone up there and then the hotspot started moving, so it was actually a mamma deer and her baby," he said with a chuckle. "If it starts moving, it is probably not a fire."
Perry said he hasn't ever lost a drone, though they are sometimes used in adverse weather conditions. The company does a lot of training to ensure that isn't likely, but he also noted that losing a drone isn't the worst-case scenario compared with the alternative.

"There's a huge difference between losing a drone and having a manned aviation disaster — like a helicopter crashing," he said. "There's a huge difference between losing a life and a little drone."

The technology improves safety, he said.

Pride in the work

For Perry, one of the best feelings is knowing that the work he and his coworkers do can influence evacuation orders being retracted or expanded.

"There were situations when we went out there, we deployed at night, we sent out our maps in the morning, and then the next day, the evacuation orders were either expanded or retracted. I suspect that management decision was influenced by our ability to make maps and say, 'This area is safe,' or 'It isn't,'" he said. "It is a really good feeling."

When not on contract with the Wildfire Service, among other things, Perry and the team at Stinson provide drone and helicopter services for environmental, forestry, city planning, and energy organizations.

Pursuing a career in land management

Land management in B.C. can be a divisive topic, Perry said, but there is a lot of reason to be hopeful and for youth to feel there is a career in it for them.

"It is OK to be critical, but it is so important to reinforce what does work," he said. "The wildfire guys out there working so hard to mitigate the risks and to mitigate the impact of climate change — we need to empower youth and reinforce the people who are doing this work. There are people out there trying to make a difference — not everything is bad."

BCIT and UBC have good programs, if folks are interested, he added.

"There's no shortage of things you can do in land management. You can work in salmon conservation, work in urban environments to mitigate wildfire risk before it happens," he said. "If they want to, they can actually make a difference."

He said anyone with questions about this can contact him at: [email protected].