How drones are fighting fire with fire in the American West

As the climate changes dramatically, droughts and heatwaves have become much more dangerous. Combined with decades of policies that prevented the controlled burning of fire-prone forests, much of the American West is now a tinderbox. According to the US Forest Service, 63 million acres are at high risk of wildfire. 

“Between 1935 and the late 1970s, the United States had a policy of [total] fire suppression. The goal was to keep fire out of the landscape entirely,” explains Rebecca Miller, a Postdoctoral Scholar at USC-Huntington Institute for the West. “However, research that came out in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that prescribed burns were actually extraordinarily beneficial to ecosystems. The removal of fire resulted in overgrown vegetation and far less healthy forests.”

Prescribed (or controlled) burns are fires humans set intentionally to clear away hazardous fuel, like dry trees or grass, in order to reduce wildfire risk. This is usually done preemptively in the…