NIFC is asking the public to keep drones away from wildfires.
As drones have become increasingly popular and more accessible, the National Interagency Fire Center has been left with a challenge on its hands. If an Unmanned Aircraft System is flying anywhere above or near a wildfire, all air traffic to help fight the fire must cease.
"We will shut down aircraft operations if we see a drone flying in or near a fire area until it has left and we're sure it isn't coming back," said Jennifer Jones, a public affairs specialist for NIFC.
That can cause serious problems, especially at the beginning of the fire, when initial attack crews can't get overhead to drop fire retardant or water from air tankers and helicopters. That, Jones said, "Is the difference between catching a fire or not."
"When you have to shut down air operations, you're opening it up to get bigger and threaten lives and property," she said.
To try and educate drone operators—usually just people who buy drones in order to get cool aerial footage and photos—NIFC launched a public service announcement, dissuading people from flying their drones near fires.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, drones can fly no higher than 400 feet by law. The trouble is, many firefighting aircraft fly at that same altitude, if not lower. Jones said she doesn't want to see an in-air collision between a drone and a helicopter or air tanker.
"We could even have problems if a pilot is flying and sees a drone and gets distracted," she said. "When you're that close to uneven, mountainous terrain, that distraction could be really problematic."
She said it's also possible that a drone could lose communication with its operator and fall out of the sky, landing on a
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National Interagency Fire Center
firefighter working on the ground.
"There are a lot of scenarios for a very serious accident or fatalities of fire fighters," Jones said. "It would be a real tragedy if someone was out there flying a drone to get some good pictures or videos and causes a serious accident. I don't think the public realizes these dangers."
Already in the past two weeks, firefighters in California have had three run-ins with drones, which hampered fire suppression. According to a news release from NIFC, air tanker operations were suspended on June 24 and June 25 in the San Bernardino National Forest around two different wildfires.
Unlike an airplane with clear tail numbers on the back, there's no way to find out who is flying the drone or where the operator is located, so communication with that person is impossible.
"You have no idea what the drone is going to do next." Jones said.
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