Firefighting Drones Could Save Costa Rican Tropical Forests

Among an artillery of broom sticks and modest hoses, drones join a Costa Rican firefighting fleet.

 Drones help firefighters patrol for fires, illegal logging and poaching within the Guanacaste Conservation Area. ||  Paige Blankenbuehler.

Drones help firefighters patrol for fires, illegal logging and poaching within the Guanacaste Conservation Area. || Paige Blankenbuehler.

This story originally appeared in Newsweek. The following text is an excerpt. Read the original, here.

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.

Continue reading this story in Newsweek.