Firefighting Drones Could Save Costa Rican Tropical Forests

Firefighters in Costa Rica are looking into drones to help them spot illegal activity and fires. Paige Blankenbuehler for Newsweek

In Sector Pocosol, an administrative section of Costa Rica's Santa Rosa National Park, there's a wide, open field of browned grass. Its perimeter is guarded by towering trees, branches barren of their leaves, which cover the ground after falling in the dry season heat. Shade is a stranger, and by 3 p.m. it's already 106 degrees. In the field, part of the vast Área Conservación de Guanacaste (ACG), I stand beside Arturo Cortés Angulo, a volunteer firefighter. Sweat covers his forehead as his thumbs hover over the controller of a drone.

A white machine with red stripes and four propellers sits in the grass in front of him, while an instructor speaks in stilted Spanish phrases. Its propellers buzz on and off. A group from the University of Missouri is training the firefighters to implement drone technology into their fire management strategies and better protect the conservation area. The Santa Rosa Program Protection and Fire Brigade, led by Julio Días Orias, isn't the first firefighting team to employ drones—in Brookings, South Dakota, for example, a fire department made a $1,500 investment in March on a drone and GoPro Camera. But Santa Rosa is at the forefront of adding drones to land management strategies—and the first team to do so in Central America.

Fires pose a constant threat to the dry tropical forest, a rare and delicate ecosystem that once stretched from Panama to Mexico but, due primarily to clear-cutting for cattle ranching and banana plantations, is now down to 163,000 hectares of parklands. Forest fires are also a threat. For decades, firemen here have been fighting and managing fires without air support, relying on a modest artillery of brooms, leaf blowers, fire backpack pump systems and a small fleet of vehicles. The Santa Rosa fire brigade employs just 13 full-time firefighters and relies on another 53 volunteers, most of whom are Costa Rican but periodically some are foreign. During the dry season, one man is stationed at the La Palma lookout point in Sector Pocosol (named for the palm-thatch rooftop the building used to have; the current incarnation is topped with wooden planks). The lookout provides strategic views of Liberia to the south, La Cruz to the north and out toward the Peninsula Santa Elena. Vehicles move throughout the park surveying for fires and illegal activity, sending word back to the station when they think firefighters are needed in the field.

The Costa Rican culture is laid-back—a selling point for a tourism economy drawing visitors to a simpler life—and the country has been slow to adopt new technology, Días Orias says. But that is beginning to change. On the border of Sector el Hacha near the Pan-American Highway, a drone flies over a fire and response team below. "It is a big step; it's like opening the horizon," Días Orias says.

Training on the drones now, Días Orias says, will put the brigade in a better position to fight the influx of fires expected to come this month. The last precipitation, in December, produced less than a half inch of rain (normally you could expect 1 to 2 inches), and trade winds gusting more than 35 miles per hour have hastened desiccation, says María Marta Chavarría, an ACG biologist. The wet season was the fourth driest in 30 years of data. "All of these changes have been impacting the landscape we knew," Chavarría says. Generally, dry lands and increased winds make for more fire, but at the same time, since this "wet season" didn't yield typical grass levels, fuel levels are lower, too. "On one side, that's good news because then you don't expect really ugly fires, because there is not a lot of fuel. At the same time, they could spread faster," Chavarría says.

As drones wobble into the air—some of the firefighters are attempting their first flights—I'm back at the comedor (dining room), drinking lukewarm water and loitering outside of Días Orias's office, when voices come over his walkie-talkie. A familiar word crackles through the device. "Incendio!" Fire! At this time of year, late afternoons almost always bring flames. Fires can quickly spread in the protected area, so every plume of smoke sets off a flurry of activity in an otherwise tranquil culture.

As I later learn from Raúl Acevedo Peralta, the assistant supervisor for ACG Program Protection and Fire, today's fire was set on private land, probably to clear the way for a citrus plantation. Landowners struggling to make a living are quick to light fires if it means they can grow more crops, he says. In fact, almost all Guanacaste fires are caused by human activity: ranching and agricultural practices, but also arson against the park or individuals residing near the boundaries. "These fires are crimes against the environment and the ACG," Días Orias says.

A changing climate and unpredictable rain events have contributed to an increase in fires, says Chavarría, who has been compiling data in the park since 1997. Only very rarely do they start naturally, though. Lightning may have caused fires in the park previously, but the first confirmed spark was May 2009 in Sector el Hacha. Since then, only one other natural fire has been confirmed, Acevedo Peralta says. Human-caused events far outweigh the natural ones, and in the dry climate fires smolder and can spark with the littlest temptation. One fire I could see from the lookout point in Sector Pocosol had been burning for approximately 20 days just beyond the protected area. On average, 22 fires per dry season set the ACG ablaze.

When I visited the Santa Rosa fleet at the end of March, Días Orias took me out to Parcela el Príncipe, a demonstration plot within the park boundaries, to show me one way drones could help. At the plot, the fire brigade set a field of jaragua grasses ablaze. Above the flames hovered a Phantom 2 Vision+ drone, piloted by Muhammad Al-Rawi, an electrical engineering student at the University of Missouri and drone flight instructor. In a real-world application, flying drones over fire sites will enable Días Orias to view his crew in real time from a bird's-eye perspective. The drone's camera transmits the flight-point-of-view to a smartphone attachment, and Días Orias says once his team is using the equipment in the field, he'll be able to communicate different approaches to controlled burns and other fires as they're happening.

The team was able to purchase the four Phantom model remote-controlled systems designed by Da-Jiang Innovations thanks to support from the nonprofit Guanacaste Dry Forest Conservation Fund. Al-Rawi is a teaching assistant for a drone journalism course at the University of Missouri and was recruited for the training by Bill Allen, a professor of science journalism at the university, who provided input on drone models for the ACG. "I have a lot of fun designing and building these machines, and I find it just as fun to train someone and make it easier and safer to do their jobs," Al-Rawi says. "I feel like we're putting this in good hands, to good use."

The firefighters are already coming up with innovative ways to use their new, sophisticated equipment. I sat in on a brainstorming session in which firefighters, volunteers and other park employees produced an impressive list of possible uses: monitoring direction and speeds of advancing fires, establishing safety points, assisting with geographic information system mapping, tracking down illegal logging, illegal cattle grazing and even locations of illegal marijuana plantations. Días Orias thinks drones will become a regular part of operations and will help protect the lands and the tens of thousands who come to visit the national park every year.

A visiting volunteer firefighter from Palamós, Spain, Jordi Monge Comas, says the technology could prevent injuries and save lives. In 2009, five of his Spanish colleagues were killed in a major fire on the countryside in Horta de Sant Joan near Tarragona, Spain. The Pau Costa Foundation, named for one of the fallen firefighters, is funding his stay in Costa Rica, where his directive is to learn about fire practices on the ground in Central America.

In Spain, helicopters are used for fire response, but in Costa Rica, all the defense and prevention happens on the ground. Monge Comas, who has more than 20 years of experience in forest ecology and fighting fires in Spain, says he sees an opportunity for using drones to get detailed perspectives that a helicopter could not. In some cases, a drone could be used in place of a helicopter, saving money in the budget and delegating more personnel to safety. "If fires trap a man, we could see from a drone where a safe exit route is," Monge Comas says. "To me, it's all about two words: Save lives."

Nearing my last day at the Área Administrativa Pocosol with the Costa Rica fire brigade, firefighter Raúl Acevedo Peralta stands on the beach of Bahía Potrero Grande with a drone controller, preparing to land the drone into the outstretched hands of Francis Joyce, an interpreter for the University of Missouri trainers. He's the first on the team to fly the machine in the field, and the drone lowers slowly, its red light flashing—50 feet, 30 feet, 10 feet—into Joyce's hands. There's applause in the foreground by university trainers, marking the brigade's entrance into the future of firefighting. Acevedo Peralta smiles and silently hands the drone to Días Orias.

This work was supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Follow Paige Blankenbuehler on Twitter @paigeblank.