Chernobyl: An extensive forest fire is extinguished with drones

September 28, 2023
Чорнобиль: велика лісова пожежа загашена за допомогою дронів
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A fire in the exclusion zone next to an abandoned nuclear power plant, which lasted 10 days, was extinguished using drones equipped with thermal imagers.

A massive forest fire broke out in the forests surrounding the Chernobyl exclusion zone on April 4. The fire occurred almost 34 years after the accident at the fourth reactor in April 1986. An accident that led to the worst nuclear disaster in human history. The fire spread rapidly, quickly approaching the radioactive remains of nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. To make matters worse, the nuclear power plant, located near the city of Pripyat, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, could be under threat.

The situation was critical. More than 1,000 rescue workers, 120 fire engines, and multiple helicopters and airplanes fought and contained the fires for 10 days1, preventing the fire from spreading to the inactive nuclear plant as well as other facilities in the area.

On April 14, the fires were completely extinguished. According to the Ukrainian National Emergency Service, background radiation in the exclusion zone remains within normal limits and does not increase.

A fleet of 10 drones was deployed to fight the fire. Units of the State Agency of Ukraine for Management of the Exclusion Zone, the State Service of Ukraine for Emergency Situations and the State Forestry Guard used drones to conduct high-quality aerial photography, with the help of which fire liquidators were able to quickly assess the situation and make the right decisions.

“This has helped us work faster and more efficiently. Data obtained using drones enabled managers to make decisions about changing the direction of deployment of ground groups, as well as proper coordination of manned aircraft,” commented Alexander Sirota, Chairman of the Public Council at the State Agency of Ukraine for Management of the Exclusion Zone.

Drones with thermal imaging cameras are a turning point in firefighting

Drones were deployed to conduct an initial aerial survey after the first fire broke out on April 4. The situation soon escalated as the fire spread quickly due to unusually dry weather in the area.

Plumes of black smoke billowed into the sky as more than 40,000 hectares of forest surrounding the exclusion zone were engulfed in flames. In this situation, the ability of drones to conduct thermal imaging has become a critical factor for rescue services.

Video: The thermal imager mounted on the Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual drone allowed rescuers to visualize fires through thick smoke. Watch the video here.

“With such thick smoke it was impossible to get a visual overview, but we needed to deal with the situation clearly and quickly. We had two Mavic 2 Enterprise Duals drones at our disposal. Thermal imagers gave my team the ability to literally see through the smoke,” said Alexander Sirota, adding that the compact drone with two sensors (visual and thermal) can be used almost immediately after unpacking.

Photo: Two Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual drones were provided by DroneUA, DJI's partner in Ukraine, to help put out the fire.

The Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual's thermal imaging capabilities provide improved situational awareness, allowing management personnel to see real-time data, read thermal radiation measurements, and locate fires within minutes. FLIR MSXTM technology real-time overlays a standard visual image with a thermal image, embedding the contours and details of objects into the imager data for greater clarity. Crews were able to quickly identify hot spots while simultaneously gaining an up-to-date overview of the assets in the area of interest.

Photo: Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual's FLIR MSX feature combines thermal and visible images in real time (note: this image of another object has been added to demonstrate the FLIR MSX effect).

According to Alexander Sirota, this significantly reduced the time it took to deploy response teams.

“Even without fire, it is unsafe to remain in some parts of the Chernobyl zone. During a fire, we face additional risks for personnel. Drones helped reduce the time spent in radioactive zones and reduce potential damage,” emphasized Alexander Sirota.

While first responders risk their lives for public safety, it is important to equip them with reliable tools that provide reliable protection from harm.

Working together – improving communication

Large-scale wildfires are always a challenging task for responders, requiring the collaboration of multiple ground and air teams to ensure maximum response efficiency. The Chernobyl fire, which broke out just a few kilometers from the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, made the task much more difficult.

Distributing more than 1,000 firefighters, 120 fire trucks, multiple helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, and 10 drones and using them effectively presented a real challenge for incident response coordinators.

“We used drones to collaborate with ground teams and manned aircraft, exchanging information and all the data received,” noted Alexander Sirota. – Next to each drone operator were representatives of ground teams with field radio stations. Operational data on the development of the situation, coordinates of detected new outbreaks, directions of fire spread and other important information were transmitted via radio channels. Also, we quickly adjusted our tasks at the request of the command centers.”

The entire team collaboration process helped coordinators direct ground crews and manned aircraft exactly where they were needed most.

“The use of aviation in emergency situations becomes much more effective when using low-altitude data provided by drones. In the situation with the fire in the Chernobyl zone, this was due to the fact that visibility in the fire zone was almost zero, it was not possible to obtain visual data where it was most needed,” said Alexander Sirota.

On April 12, a week after the first fire, aircraft dropped 538 tons of water at the fire's source to contain its spread. “We used data obtained from drones to direct aircraft to the right places. When the planes approached the water release points, the drones were already on the ground or remained at low altitude,” commented Alexander Sirota, explaining how manned and unmanned aircraft worked together during the mission.

Drones in the fight against forest fires: an essential tool

The Chernobyl exclusion zone is the officially designated area around the site of the accident at reactor four, also known as the 30-kilometer zone or simply the Zone.

Fires in the Zone are a periodic seasonal phenomenon, but their scale this year was unique due to several factors. Ukraine experienced an abnormally warm and snowless winter, which dried out the forests, followed by a dry and windy spring, which contributed to the rapid spread of the flames.

The preparedness of response teams helps them contain and extinguish fires quickly and effectively.

Alexander Sirota reported that the State Agency of Ukraine for Management of the Exclusion Zone has been regularly using drones in the Zone since 2016. Drones monitor the area and detect fires in the early stages. Drones are effective tools not only during fire response, but more importantly, in fire prevention.

“UAVs are an essential tool for fighting forest fires, and thermal imaging functions play a particularly important role,” commented Alexander Sirota. “We've been using drones to monitor wildfires for years. But after the experience of working with the Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual and receiving data from thermal imagers, it seemed to me that before that I was simply blind.”

Drones are especially important in fighting wildfires, which quickly get out of control and put both pilots and firefighting teams at risk. There is only a short time interval between the time a fire starts and it gets out of control. Drones provide firefighters with a bird's-eye view and help determine where fires are moving so fire responders can quickly make decisions about where rescuers should go and who should be evacuated. Find out more about 4 ways drones are helping fight wildfires here.

Source: DJI website
photographic materials (c) Alexander Sirota

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