Public Service, Regulatory, Safety

Hobbyist Drones Have Hampered Aerial Firefighting

By Frank Wolfe | April 30, 2019
Send Feedback | @fwolfe18

Last May, the Bureau of Land Management warned of the dangers posed by drones to aerial firefighting efforts (U.S. Bureau of Land Management photo)

Two camera-equipped DJI drones may have helped Parisian firefighters to position their hoses to quench the Notre Dame Cathedral blaze on April 15, but drones have been a problem for aerial firefighting efforts in the United States.

"Aerial firefighting missions including aerial supervision, air tanker retardant drops, helicopter water drops, and smoke jumper para-cargo occur between ground level and 200 feet above ground level, which is the same altitude that many hobbyist drones fly," according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

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"Hobbyist drones and firefighting aircraft don't mix," NIFC said. "All authorized aircraft on an incident maintain radio communication with each other to safely coordinate their missions, but aerial firefighting flight crews have no way to communicate with drone operators. Aerial firefighting aircraft have no way to detect drones other than by seeing them, and visual detection is nearly impossible due to the small size of most drones. These factors make a mid-air collision with an unauthorized drone a distinct possibility."

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources urged hobbyists to be aware of aerial firefighting efforts and keep their drones away from them.

Casey McCoy, the fire prevention supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said on April 23 that "most people wouldn’t dream of driving their car in front of a fire engine that’s responding to a fire."

“Flying your drone during a wildfire is just as reckless," he said. "We have to ground our planes until the drone gets out of the way, and that slows down our ability to fight the fire.”

The department said that temporary flight restrictions (TFR) to protect firefighting aircraft may extend around a five mile radius of the wildfire and "even if temporary flight restrictions are not in place, people will be penalized if their drone is caught near a wildfire."

Drones interfered with firefighting efforts in the U.S. at least 26 times last year, compared with 36 times in 2017, 41 times in 2016, 25 times in 2015, and 14 times in 2014, according to NIFC. In 22 of these incidents last year, drones shut down aerial firefighting efforts in western states, including the Bible Back Fire in Idaho, the Bocco Fire in Colorado, and the Constantia Fire in northeastern California.

In the Bocco Fire last June, an unauthorized drone forced the Bureau of Land Management to order a temporary grounding of aerial firefighting tankers and helicopters.

Near misses at higher altitudes have also occurred.

In June, 2015, U.S. Forest Service Aviation Offficer Mike Eaton said that two drones flying near California firefighting aircraft in closed airspace “could’ve killed everybody in the air."  Eaton said a red or orange fixed-wing drone with a 3-4 foot wingspan flew between two firefighting aircraft flying at 12,500 and 11,500 feet that were preparing to drop retardant on the Lake Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains. An air tanker was trailing the two aircraft. After the encounter with the drone, the three aircraft broke off, and two returned to base at San Bernardino International Airport. As they did, the pilots reported spotting a rotary-wing unmanned aircraft flying at about 700 feet.

"Per the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, 43 CFR 9212.1(f), it is illegal to resist or interfere with the efforts of firefighter(s) to extinguish a fire," NIFC said. "Doing so can result in a significant fine and/or a mandatory court appearance. So, be smart and just don't fly your drone anywhere near a wildfire. No amount of video or photos are worth the consequences."

Established in 2015, the "Know Before You Fly" campaign between the Federal Aviation Administration, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International tells owners of recreational drones to keep them in sight at all times and to use an observer, if needed.

Such owners "should maintain situational awareness, give way to, and remain a safe distance away from" low-level aircraft flying agricultural, firefighting, law enforcement, emergency medical, wildlife survey, and other missions, according to Know Before You Fly.

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