FARGO — When a fire in north Fargo reached the two-alarm stage the afternoon of Dec. 5, Fire Chief Steve Dirksen and other department officials were notified that crews were dealing with something out of the ordinary and additional resources were necessary.
Among those called in that day to help fight the fire was an off-duty training officer who grabbed one of the fire department's drones and brought it with him to the fire.
"He had the idea to get the drone and come to the scene with it and that was invaluable," Dirksen said on Tuesday, Dec. 29, recalling the fire early in December that ultimately became a three-alarm blaze, meaning first-responders from Moorhead and West Fargo were enlisted to help combat the fire.
From the start, the fire proved to be a challenge, Dirksen said, adding that fire crews had a difficult time getting inside the extensive structure in north Fargo. (The property's owner said that the building housed antiques, and many were likely a total loss.)
Dirksen said the fire department has been training on and working with drones for about two years, but the Dec. 5 fire was one of the first times a drone was used to such an extensive degree.
"The thermal imaging and the real-time video of it really provided a great overview that we couldn't normally see from the ground, or even from an aerial ladder," Dirksen said.
The fire department's drone pilots are part of the Red River Valley Unmanned Aircraft Systems unit, which includes pilots from the Fargo Police Department, the West Fargo Police Department, the West Fargo Fire Department and the Cass County Sheriff's Office.
"All provide pilots to the team and we try to help each other out," Dirksen said, adding that the Fargo Fire Department is always looking for new technologies that help firefighters do their job while also enhancing their safety.
Dirksen said reviewing thermal images obtained by a drone can provide investigators with clues regarding how and where a fire started, but he added the longer a fire burns the more difficult it is to make such determinations.
"It does give us a good indication of where to start looking," Dirksen said, referring to drone imagery.
Dirksen said hand-held thermal imagers were considered the greatest thing in the firefighting world 25 years ago.
Back then, he said, hand-held imagers cost about $25,000 each.
"Now, we've been able to take that same technology and put it on a drone and we do it for half that cost," Dirksen said.