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Mississippi Firefighters Get New Weapon

By Caleb Harris and Hallie Grace

Journalism Student

School of Journalism and New Media reporters Caleb Harris and Hallie Grace Withrow explore new firefighting efforts in the state.

Forest firefighters in Mississippi have a new tool to help in their mission to protect the state, and it’s needed. In the past month, hundreds of wildfires have burned portions of the landscape and a burn ban is in effect for 40 counties.

Now, the U.S. Forest Service has four drones to help track fires and to help ground crews stay out of danger when a fire starts to shift.

Oxford Fire Chief Joey Gardner sees the benefits.

“You can fly your drone over a place and you can see if there might be still fire in a wooded area that you can’t see from your vantage point,” Gardner said. “And you’ll be able to get up in the air and see and know exactly where to go.”

In Oxford, Gardner says a drone might be used for other important purposes, such as a search for a missing person.

“We could send that drone up,” Gardner said, ”fly over the tops of trees and be able to have a better vantage point to locate a missing person, but it would work the same way with a wildfire.”

Drones offer a safer way for firefighters to track where a fire may be moving.

Lafayette County does not yet have a burn ban in place, but Gardner says Oxford Fire may one day get a drone of its own as some of his firefighters now have drone pilot licenses. University of Mississippi journalism professor Michael Fagans is a licensed drone pilot who has covered wildfires in the past.

“For most of the wildfire coverage I’ve done, I was there to make images and or video to help tell the story of not only the firefighting but of the communities that were impacted by the fires,” Fagans said.

He sees the value of drones in these situations, too. According to the U.S. Forest Service, aviation accidents are the most common in fighting wildfires, so while helicopters can do more, drones mean less risk to all involved.

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