The Eagle Creek Fire spread through the Columbia River Gorge, September 4, 2017.

The Eagle Creek Fire spread through the Columbia River Gorge, September 4, 2017.

Courtesy of InciWeb

Fire season has officially started — and officials say this year could be worse than last year. At a U.S. Senate committee Tuesday, Northwest lawmakers questioned what’s being done to prevent and fight catastrophic wildfires — and how technology could help.

One idea that came up time and again: drones. Lawmakers hope drones can help reduce the burden on people called in to work the fire lines.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, said drones can provide information to firefighters without putting flight crews in harm’s way.

“As we approach this fire season, making sure that those on the fire line have the best possible information is going to be critical,” Cantwell said.

Cantwell wants the government to be “very aggressive” in its approach to using drones.

The U.S. Interior Department owns 500 drones, though they’re mostly used for monitoring and surveying natural resources. Department officials say many of their drone pilots can fly during wildfires.

Vicki Christiansen, the interim chief of the U.S. Forest Service, acknowledged the Interior Department is leading the way in natural resource drone testing. But, she said, the Forest Service is going to increase its use of drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems.

“We see a very strong use in innovation and safety aspects of using (unmanned aircraft systems) on fires and look forward when they can have additional capacity beyond just the surveillance,” Christiansen said.

Officials said, eventually, drones may be able to do more than survey fires — they may be able to help fight them.

At the hearing, the panelists also talked about combatting sexual harassment on the fire lines and making it easier for people to report incidents. They said they agencies are studying the harmful effects of wildfire smoke and how controlled fires could be better for people’s health.

Lawmakers also questioned the shortage of aerial tankers — which can drop water or flame retardant on wildfires — during previous fire seasons.