Idaho company spotting fires from the air 

Sharon Fisher//August 25, 2021

Idaho company spotting fires from the air 

Sharon Fisher//August 25, 2021

An Idaho company using technology to detect the start and growth of wildfires has been having a busy year.

Infrared imagery with heat showing up as white spots. OAR can overlay the IR imagery on top of the Electro-Optic imagery, as well as display augmented reality to see street names, county lines, etc. as needed. Image courtesy of OAR

As of July 31, Owyhee Air Research (OAR) has flown 267 missions, covering 178,316 acres and 56 individual fires and complexes.

“Last year, we flew two aircrafts essentially full time,” said Michael Intschert, OAR president. If the company had had a third aircraft, it probably would have been flying essentially full time as well, he said.

About the company

Based at the Nampa airport, OAR was founded in the Murphy area about 15 years ago by a former American Airlines pilot who wanted to get into natural resource surveying, Intschert said. The company started with contracts with state and federal agencies like Idaho Fish & Game and the Bureau of Land Management to count wildlife.

But around 2015, OAR purchased thermal infrared technology on a pivoting gimbal, installed on its aircraft. That meant the company could get contracts with state and federal government agencies to detect wildfires by flying at night. “We were one of the first private companies doing this,” Intschert said.

As time went on, OAR acquired more planes and sensors. It now has four planes, and leases a fifth — a total of two single-engine airplanes and three multiengine planes, most recently a twin turboprop called a King Air. “It’s really expanded our capacity,” Intschert said. “It can fly much faster and further away from our homebase and cover a lot more ground.”

An Owyhee Air Research plane. Photo courtesy of OAR

Now, sensing fires is such a big part of OAR’s business that it focuses on that during the four to five months of fire season, doing most of the environmental work the rest of the year, Intschert said. Single-engine planes aren’t used for wildfire reconnaissance because they’re not well suited for flying over mountains at night, he explained.

OAR has also signed a contract with the U.S. Forest Service this year to detect the start of new wildfires. When there have been storms, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise sends OAR data about lightning strikes and a crew goes out looking for smoke, heat or fire, Intschert said. In fact, during a busy fire season, a plane may go out during the day for four to eight hours looking for fire starts, come back, swap crews and go back out for a night mission of another four to eight hours checking on fire spread, he said.

The infrared technology has other potential uses as well. The sensors OAR planes have are also on police helicopters and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) aircraft, Intschert said. The company doesn’t have any contracts with the DEA, but does have contracts with state police to supplement them for airborne surveillance. “It’s been exercised once or twice,” he said. “We will, if asked.”

Electro-Optic imagery of an OAR flight. Image courtesy of OAR

About the staff members

At this point, OAR has about 22 employees, a mix of full time, part time and seasonal, as well as a couple of contractors on an as-needed basis. Planes typically travel with a minimum of two people on board: a pilot, to fly the plane, and a sensor operator, to run the infrared sensor, count the wildlife or whatever other task the plane has been assigned.

Hiring is both easy and challenging, Intschert said. “There’s a lot of pilots clamoring for this type of job,” he said. But the position has specific requirements, including being instrument flight rated, commercial and multiengine rated, experience flying over mountainous terrain and at least 200 hours of night flying, he said. So far, those requirements have paid off. “All of our aircraft and people are still with us,” he said.

On the sensor operator side, OAR likes to hire wildlife biologists because they have a good mix of knowledge about geographic information systems and experience looking for animals and birds, Intschert said.

In addition to Idaho, OAR also flies missions to Montana and Washington. In previous years, when it was less busy, it also flew missions in Arizona, California, Colorado and Utah, Intschert said.