Drone Captures Sky-High View of Intense House Fire

By MIKE CHRISTEN mchristen@c-dh.net

Last week, a Columbia family narrowly escaped a house fire that destroyed their home.

Now, a video documenting fire from a bird’s-eye view has been released by the city’s fire department.

The video was shot using the latest tool in the department’s arsenal, a miniature unmanned flying vehicle.

On Saturday, Feb. 2, a Columbia family escaped their burning home on S. High Street near downtown Columbia. Smoke billowed from the blaze, which started around 6:55 a.m. in the kitchen ceiling and spread rapidly throughout the home.

Built in 1929, the structure, home to its occupants for more than 30 years, was a total loss.

“I was asleep on the bed,” Scott Churchwell told The Daily Herald, recalling last week’s events. “I heard my wife yell for me. I realized my bedroom was full of smoke. It [the smoke] was about 6 to 8 inches off my chest. It was like a dream.”

Churchwell and his wife, Mamie Jean, grabbed their still-sleeping 8-year-old grandson and rushed out of the building. He used a fire extinguisher in an attempt to put out the fire, but the flames spread quickly across the room, giving the three just enough time to escape.

“I realized the whole ceiling was on fire,” he said. “It was all fire.”

They evacuated the home through a back door and, after opening the rear entrance, a 15-foot flame exited the building and lit his truck on fire.

“It was like a scene from that movie ‘Backdraft,’ ” Churchwell said.

As firefighters battled the blaze, firefighter Jose Periut Jr. arrived on scene to document the situation using an unmanned aerial vehicle owned by the department.

As a member of the department’s Emergency Robotics Deployment Team, Periut captured unique views of the local firefighters battling the flames with a ladder truck, and photographed heavy smoke as it billowed high above the Columbia residence.

The structure’s occupants made it out of the home in time, but two of their three animals died.

All of the family’s processions were destroyed in the fire. Both of the family’s vehicles were scorched, all of their medication, breathing respirators, oxygen tanks and a large collection of antiques were all destroyed by the flames.

“We are alive and insurance is going to cover us,” Churchwell said. “We need a new place to live, but we are still alive.”

Cobb said the aerial footage will be used by the department for review and training purposes.

“This is an invaluable tool,” Cobb said of the drone.

Unmanned drones are growing in use by first responders across the planet.

In January, two teenagers of the coast of New South Wales in Australia were rescued by emergency personnel using a drone.

The BBC reported that a member of the public spotted them struggling in heavy surf about 2,300 feet off the coast of Lennox Head.

Lifesavers instantly sent the drone to drop an inflatable rescue pod, and the pair, aged 15 and 17, made their way safely to shore with the help of the life raft.

“The Little Ripper UAV certainly proved itself today, it is an amazingly efficient piece of lifesaving equipment and a delight to fly,” lifeguard supervisor Jai Sheridan, the drone’s pilot at the time of the rescue, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Cobb said the department’s vehicle, a smaller machine than the one used in Australia, will allow firefighters to have a greater understanding of the risky situations they find themselves in. The miniature aircraft will also be used by the department for search and rescue operations and for security purposes at major gatherings including Columbia’s annual Mule Day celebrations.

Periut, a full-time firefighter, is the department’s sole pilot certified by the Federal Aviation Commission. He also plans to train his fellow firefighters to pilot the machine and earn certification with the FAA.

A GoFundMe account created by the Churchwells’ niece, Heather McCormack, has been opened to help bring financial relief to the family.

Visit https://www.gofundme.com/a-complete-loss to make a donation. [Click for More]