It’s fire season, and the West is ablaze. The 14 wildfires that are currently burning in California have forced thousands to evacuate while about 5,000 firefighters work to control the blazes running rampant across the state. Fires in Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado also have the Forest Service and fire departments out working tirelessly to contain the blazes—but efforts are being thwarted by a new obstacle this year: drones.
“In the past month just in southern California alone we’ve had to ground aircraft in three different instances,” California Fire Battalion Chief Mike Mohler says. “It’s a statewide problem — if we see a drone we have to set down all of our aircraft, which completely halts our ability to fight fires. That can cause more property damage and possibly a life.”
According to FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) regulations, recreational drone pilots must “give way to manned aircraft” and are forbidden from flying near any emergency response efforts such as a fire. But so far the regulations (and common sense) haven’t kept pilots from flying their drones into restricted firefighting zones. Firefighting efforts have been obstructed four times in four days at the site of the now-contained Lightner Creek wildfire in Colorado, twice at the Boundary Fire in Arizona, once at the Bonita Fire in New Mexico, and four times at the Pinal Fire in Arizona. A tweet The National Interagency Fire Center has tallied wildfire obstructions due to drone up to a total of 17 for the year, and unfortunately it’s not a mistake recreational drone pilots seem to be learning from. Last year, firefighting planes were unable to takeoff during containment efforts at the Saddle Fire in Utah, causing a delay and massive evacuations of the area.
6 more drone incursions over wildfires confirmed, bringing 2017 total to 17. See updated graphic at https://t.co/Ch37SwzhBl— BLM NIFC (@BLMNIFC) July 7, 2017
“We’ve seen this problem before and it’s getting worse since the drone market is so large,” Mohler says. “Hobbyists are going in to get aerial footage of where we’re working but they don’t understand that if you fly, we can’t.” Mohler says that Cal Fire is now working closely with the FAA and drone manufacturers and distributors to train drone pilots on current regulations. “It’s all about education,” he says. “It’s not like they [the drone pilots] were out to do something negligent or harmful, but it can be harmful. If you’re a hobby drone owner it comes down to using common sense and education. A wildfire is the last place your drone needs to be.”
Flying a drone near a fire not only stalls rescue efforts for emergency responders, but also puts a pilot at risk for some serious trouble with the law. Last week, state prosecutors filed felony criminal charges against a man accused of endangering air and ground firefighting crews by flying a drone in Prescott National Forest in Arizona during a wildfire. Firefighting crews are able to locate hobby drones in an area and enact an incursion on the airspace to remove the drone and cite the owner. It slows down rescue efforts, endangers people, and results in a costly penalty for the drone owner. “We aren’t here to take away drones,” Mohler says. “We’re here to keep people safe. That’s why we’re working to get the message out: If you fly, we can’t.”