US Forest Service drones can be helpful for fighting fires, but rouge drones can ground airplanes and helicopters.
Rogue drones and other aircraft have recently hampered efforts and endangered the lives of people fighting fires in Utah Forests said Kait Webb the statewide prevention and fire communications coordinator.
“There have been two drone incursions and two airplane incursions into the fire Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) areas of the William Fire, the Ether Hollow Fire and the Goshen Fire in the past few days,” she said. “Flying manned or unmanned aircraft into a TFR is punishable by fines, license suspension, and possible imprisonment.”
People capturing images of fires with drones and airplanes may think their efforts are innocent enough, and may not realize the danger they are causing firefighters.
Webb said airplanes and helicopters critical to firefighting efforts had to land and wait until the airspace is cleared before resuming water or retardant deliveries to the fire.
“Lives and property are put at undue risk when fire suppression is prevented by pilots not following FAA regulations,” Webb said. “Pilots of manned and unmanned aircraft are required to check the Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) prior to their flight.”
All pilots of drones or other aircraft should check for restricted airspace before they fly, especially around fires and other emergency events where emergency personnel are working.
“All aircraft pilots in the incursion incidents were tracked down and turned over to local and federal authorities,” she said. “Flying a drone near a wildfire is dangerous and can cost lives.”
When rogue drones are spotted near wildfires, responding firefighting agencies will often ground their aircraft to avoid the potential of a midair collision and the harm that may come to the pilot or the ground crew.
“Delaying airborne response poses a threat to firefighters on the ground, residents and property in nearby communities, and it can allow wildfires to grow larger,” Webb said. “Sadly, these incidents occur on a regular basis”.
Drones are becoming a regular nuisance during fires. In recent years, there have been more than 100 documented cases of unauthorized drones flying near wildfires.
“Your photos and video footage of the wildfires are not worth the lives and crucial operations they jeopardize,” Webb said. “The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) says it best: If You Fly, We Can’t. It’s a federal crime, punishable by up to 12 months in prison, to interfere with firefighting efforts on public lands.”
The FAA to was authorized by congress to impose a civil penalty of up to $20,000 against any drone pilot who interferes with wildfire suppression, law enforcement or emergency response operations. The FAA treats these violations seriously and will immediately consider swift enforcement action for these offenses.