Drones A Growing Problem For Wildland Firefighters

Jun 29, 2015

This poster is part of a campaign to educate the public on the dangers of flying unmanned aircraft near wildfires.
Credit U.S. Forest Service

Drones are a growing concern for those who fight the nation’s wildfires, and the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise is again asking those who fly drones to keep them away from fires.

Twice last week, aerial firefights on the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California had to be suspended because of nearby Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS.   

Firefighting agencies made a similar plea last August. The government has launched a campaign to educate the public on the issue. 

Officials say a drone colliding with an air tanker or a helicopter is a concern.  A distracted pilot is another.

“Aerial firefighting aircraft, such as airtankers and helicopters, fly at very low altitudes,typically just a couple of hundred feet above the ground, the same as UAS flown by members of the public do, creating the potential for a mid-air collision that could seriously injure or kill aerial and/or ground firefighters.  In addition, a UAS flown by a member of the public that loses its communication link could fall from the sky, causing serious injuries or deaths of firefighters on the ground.” - National Interagency Fire Center

Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones says the suspension of water and retardant drops over a fire can mean the loss of critical resources. 

“And what that could do, especially in the early stages of a fire, is that fire could grow and unduly threaten lives and property,” Jones says. “Air tanker operations, especially in the initial phases of a fire when we’re trying to keep it small and keep it from growing, are very critical to support those firefighters on the ground.”

Jones says many times those who fly drones near fires don’t understand the effect they might have on suppression efforts.

“It’s members of the public that are out there looking for some good pictures very innocently and just don’t realize the potentially catastrophic situation that could result from just trying to get a good picture.”

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