BOISE – Folks flying unauthorized drones near wildfires are getting in firefighters’ way, prompting the National Interagency Fire Center to ask operators to cut it out.
Drones “could cause serious injury or death to firefighters on the ground,” NIFC warned Friday in a news release. “They could also have midair collisions with airtankers, helicopters, and other aircraft engaged in wildfire suppression missions.”
There have been at least three instances this year of unauthorized drone flights near wildfire zones. Such flights violate temporary flight restrictions that typically are imposed around wildfires and require permission from fire managers to enter the airspace. Some of the drones apparently were taking video or collecting data on the fires.
Aitor Bidaburu, chair of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group at NIFC, said people shouldn’t fly drones near wildfires whether or not formal flight restrictions have been imposed. The presence of an unauthorized drone could prompt fire managers to suspend aerial suppression efforts until they’re sure it’s gone, disrupting firefighting, he said.
The three incidents so far this year occurred in June and July at the Carlton Complex fire near Twisp, Washington; at the Two Bulls fire near Bend, Oregon; and at the Sands fire in Northern California.
No one has been prosecuted.
“All of these instances appear to have been just hobbyists,” said NIFC spokesman Randy Eardley. “You can buy those kits and build them these days so easily. They were just seen flying around. We do know that none of them were media.”
Eardley said fire officials usually have no problem coordinating with news media helicopter flights and the like because there’s full communication. “But with these unpiloted hobby units, you have no communication whatsoever with them. There’s just a huge potential for a very nasty tragedy.”
He added, “These really do have the potential to completely shut down air operations at a fire.”
Anyone determined to have interfered with wildfire suppression efforts could be subject to civil penalties and potentially criminal prosecution.
NIFC, located in Boise, is the multiagency center that coordinates wildland firefighting across the nation.