Boeing’s drone unit in the Columbia Gorge closed its facilities due to smoke from the Eagle Creek wildfire. With one drone team just back from Texas after Hurricane Harvey, another was ready Friday for dispatch to Florida and a third was setting up to monitor the Oregon fire.
A team from Boeing’s drone subsidiary, Insitu, returned Thursday from hurricane duty in Texas to find the company’s facilities in the Columbia Gorge closed due to smoke from the rapidly spreading Eagle Creek fire.
Late Friday afternoon, another drone team had set up equipment at Bingen Point on the Washington side of the river, ready to launch one of the company’s ScanEagle surveillance drones to help monitor the blaze.
Meanwhile a third Insitu team was staged Friday in Starkville, Mississippi, ready for dispatch to wherever Hurricane Irma hits in Florida.
Police believe the Eagle Creek fire started Saturday when a 15-year-old boy from Vancouver threw a firework into the bone-dry gorge.
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As the fire expanded to more than 33,000 acres and spread eastward along the Oregon side of the river, the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office on Friday afternoon extended the “level two” evacuation warning area — within which people should be packed and “ready to leave at a moment’s notice” — east to Viento State Park, less than 10 miles from the town of Hood River.
Insitu, which employs about 900 people in the area, is headquartered in Bingen on the Washington-state side, but has a dozen different buildings, with some of those facilities just over the bridge in Hood River.
Insitu spokeswoman Jenny Beloy said that by Monday employees were wearing masks indoors because of the smoke.
All of Insitu’s Gorge facilities were closed Thursday and some employees were evacuated from homes to the east, Beloy said.
Flying drones in disaster areas is tightly controlled and Insitu is working with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of the Interior and the Oregon Department of Forestry to coordinate its efforts with firefighting services.
TacAero, an aerial services company in Hood River, has already flown manned surveillance flights in small aircraft using Insitu camera equipment.
The ScanEagle drones, 4.5-feet long with a wingspan of just over 10 feet, add an extra dimension to the monitoring of the fire.
They carry high-resolution optical and infrared video cameras for day and night surveillance and can stay aloft for up to 20 hours at a time. Insitu partners with California company FireWhat to produce complex digital maps of the fire zone.
Late Friday, the Insitu team was ready to go and awaiting final permission to launch.
The company effort to help out after Hurricane Harvey had just concluded.
Russ Torgerson, Insitu’s mission commander in Texas, got back home to the Gorge on Thursday evening.
In an interview, he described how his 12-man team deployed four ScanEagles initially over the Bay of Corpus Christi to help the port assess the hurricane damage.
They located one ship that had sunk in the bay and was a hazard to mariners, and created a map of the debris field using FireWhat’s technology.
His team then traveled to Sugar Land, southwest of Houston, where they flew damage-assessment missions for four days, and then to Angleton, nearer the coast, for a similar mission.
Torgerson, a program manager at Insitu, said six Insitu personnel are now pre-positioned in Mississippi, “staged and ready to go” with their drones and all their surveillance and computer equipment.
That team will move this weekend to assist with recovery efforts after Irma hits, even as the Eagle Creek fire creeps closer to their home base.