Federal, state, and local wildland fire management agencies and the Federal Aviation Administration urge members of the public not to fly Unmanned Aircraft Systems or drones over or near wildfires. Unauthorized drone flights pose serious risks to firefighter and public safety and hinder wildfire suppression operations.
This season there have been 17 documented instances of unauthorized drone flights over or near wildfires in nine states (Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Washington) that have resulted in aerial firefighting operations being temporarily shut down 14 times.
If an unauthorized drone is detected flying over or near a wildfire, fire managers may have to ground all airtankers, helicopters, and other aerial firefighting aircraft until they can confirm that the drone has left the area and they feel confident that it won’t be coming back.
“Most members of the public would never dream of standing in front of a fire engine to stop it from getting to a wildfire, but that’s essentially what they’re doing to aerial firefighting aircraft when they fly a drone over or near a wildfire,” said Dan Buckley, Chair of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Aerial firefighting aircraft, such as airtankers and helicopters, fly at very low altitudes, typically just a couple of hundred feet above the ground and in the same airspace as drones flown by the public. This creates the potential for a mid-air collision, or a pilot distraction that results in a crash, that could seriously injure or kill aerial and/or ground firefighters.
The U.S. Department of the Interior, in partnership with other federal, state, and local agencies, has developed a wildfire location data-sharing program called “Current Wildland Fires” to inform drone pilots of areas to avoid flying over or near. More information is available at https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/interior-expands-information-sharing-initiative-prevent-drone-incursions.
To keep drone pilots aware of flight restrictions, the FAA has a free smartphone app called B4UFLY which helps drone pilots determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements at the location.