By Teresa Avila
AREA DE CONSERVACIÓN GUANACASTE, Costa Rica — In the Poco Sol firefighting station’s conference room, the constant hum of the air-conditioning could almost make you forget that the outside temperature is well into the nineties. At the front of the small room, MU professor of science journalism Bill Allen stands before a projector and explains the importance of drone safety to a group of about 20 Costa Rican park rangers. To his left is Francis Joyce, the group’s guide and interpreter. Every few sentences, Joyce translates between the English-speaking instructor and the Spanish-speaking students.
To Allen’s right, seven MU students sit against the wall and either listen to the lecture, record video or take pictures. (Some, all three.)
From somewhere outside, through the open door, the crackle of a radio infiltrates the classroom. A single word stands out: “Incendio.” (Fire.)
Not five minutes later, the lesson is interrupted with a polite, “Excuse me, excuse me,” from Maria Marta Chavarria, one of the park’s research biologists. She and others discuss something in rapid Spanish.
“Okay,” Joyce says, nodding before he turns to the English-speakers in the room. “So there is a fire in progress pretty close by, so he’s not recommending sending everybody, but maybe I can go with one group.”
A few minutes later, after some negotiations, five of the MU students pile into a car to accompany Joyce to the site of the fire. The firefighters hope to use one of the drones, the Phantom 2 Vision-Plus with a self-steadying camera, to get a wide view of the fire and its possible path. The electrical engineering student of the group, Muhammad Al-Rawi, will pilot the drone. The other four will act as field reporters.
You smell the smoke long before you see it. It makes eyes water and stings the palate and back of the throat. But once our car arrives at its destination, the flames have already come and gone. The students clamber over a wooden fence and crunch through gray and ashy debris to peer at a few lingering fist-size flames. One flame licks at a charred branch; it swells and retreats with the wind. Blue-gray smoke sifts through the grasses.
After some discussion, Al-Rawi sends the Phantom 2 drone into the air to gather follow-up data for the firefighters. The images confirm what the fire boss, Julio Díaz Orias, already knew: that the fire started in land across the road from the ACG and, more importantly, that it hasn’t jumped the highway into parkland.
Information about the exact nature of the fire comes in disjointed packets. Joyce tells the students that the firefighters are addressing multiple fires. This one was on private land, but another has separately occurred on parkland.
The group drives to this second fire site, which is on a firebreak next to the highway. Once again, the firefighters have Al-Rawi use the drone to follow up on the fire’s activities. The students and several firefighters shade their eyes and peer up at the tiny whirring white drone, now as small as a pinky fingernail. A stiff wind comes in from the northeast, ranging from 7 to 18 km/hr. The really big gusts can reach 30 km/hr.
With winds like these and temperatures now above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s all too easy for embers to slip into parkland.
The next day, the students and firefighters gather in the Poco Sol conference room to watch the drone’s footage. Much of the confusion from the day before is cleared as Díaz Orias explains what exactly the images show.
The image on the screen came from the second stop, above the firebreak. A swathe of bare earth is visible in the distance. This is the fire that the students first visited but, paradoxically, the one that Díaz Orias says had been slowly burning for the last five days on adjacent private land.
The property owner told the firefighters that someone had set the fire to get back at him. In the classroom, the firefighters speculate that the landowner might have been lying. Maybe he wanted to repurpose the land and was clearing trees and grasses. It’s hard to say. Such uncertainty is just one obstacle that the ACG firefighters face when trying to prevent and manage fires. It’s also another way that the drones can prove useful: they can provide solid information on where a fire was started and where it might go next, Díaz Orias says.
The second fire on a firebreak — the one that pulled the students out the door in the middle of a lesson — actually proved helpful for the firefighters. The firebreak needs to be periodically burned anyway. In the end, this fire also proved to be easy to manage; fuel was scarce and the area mostly smoldered.
Examining the image on the projector, one can see how the ACG’s efforts are taking effect. The Pan-American highway cuts through the image’s center. On the left is private land that has seen more fire. On the right, on ACG land, green blurs that represent trees are more numerous, and the grass itself looks a shade greener. It’s encouraging evidence that the firebreak and the ACG firefighters are doing their job, and that the dry forest is able to return when just given a chance.