Wildfire threatens the homes of workers at the biggest private employer in the Columbia River Gorge. That would be Boeing Defense subsidiary Insitu, which makes surveillance drones. One of Insitu's 45-pound high-tech unmanned aircraft joined the fire fight this weekend.
Insitu launched one of its ScanEagle drones just a stone's throw from the factory where it was made in Bingen, Washington. Senior manager for commercial aviation Charlton Evans says the company offered its eye-in-the-sky services when it became clear the Eagle Creek Fire posed a major threat to their Columbia Gorge community.
"It is hitting home in an extremely real way," Evans said. "The fact that we're here and we can literally launch and recover from our back yard to support it is just an amazing opportunity. We're happy to be able to help even though it’s a tragedy in our back yard."
The first of what may be many ScanEagle overflights equipped with infrared cameras took place on Saturday night. For several years now, Insitu has been trying to broaden its mostly military customer base. Another team of its drone operators with several ScanEagles is standing by in the U.S. Southeast to perform post-Hurricane Irma damage assessment.
This year, Insitu teamed up with a digital mapping startup based in Bend, Oregon and Dunsmuir, California called FireWhat to offer a real-time, long duration aerial fire mapping capability to managers of big wildfires.
Evans said there were "some friction points" in getting a contract in place and all the necessary flight approvals from an alphabet soup of federal and state agencies involved in the Eagle Creek fire command. That along with incoming rain delayed the initial ScanEagle launch from Thursday until Saturday.
The incident commanders previously called on and continue to use a small manned aircraft from a different vendor to do aerial mapping of the gorge fire's spread and to identify hot spots.
As of Sunday night, the Eagle Creek wildfire had scorched 33,682 acres and was just seven percent contained. Favorable weather over the weekend aided the firefighting effort and led to minimal expansion of the fire perimeter. A teenager playing with fireworks is believed to have sparked the fire on September 2.
Earlier last week, the wildfire burned to the edge of Cascade Locks, advanced toward Hood River and launched embers across the Columbia River west of Stevenson. All of those towns are places where Insitu workers live.