Our Northwest

Drone dangers for firefighters

Thursday, July 21, 2016by  Derek Wing

Firefighters have a message for hobby drone operators: Quit getting in the way.

Drones are growing in popularity – more than 6 million were sold in 2015 alone, and they’re now being used for everything from aerial photography to “Rotocross” racing. Experts predict that as drones become more affordable, sales will increase tenfold by the end of the decade.

But the increasing number of hobby drones is becoming a nuisance to crews working to fight wildfires in the West. According to the U. S. Forest Service, firefighting aircraft in the U.S. have already been grounded six times this year because of hobby drones interfering with their operations.

While the wildfire season has been fairly quiet in the Northwest, there are several wildfires burning in California, where officials recently made the first arrest of a drone hobbyist for interfering with firefighting efforts.

Drones may be small, but they can cause big problems for fire crews. Because of the potential for mid-air crashes with planes or helicopters that are dropping fire retardant or water, firefighters can’t fly in spaces where other aircraft (including drones) are operating. In the case of the California drone enthusiast, “Every minute we couldn’t fly our aircraft because of this drone, the fire was able to grow and do more damage,” the fire chief said.

In addition to slowing down firefighting efforts by preventing rescue workers from getting airborne, drones can also be a danger to larger aircraft that are already in the sky, since drones are hard to see and often look like a bird in the distance. It’s such a problem that the FAA has talked about requiring regular aviation lights to be displayed on drones and other model aircraft, just as they are on their full-size counterparts.

In the meantime, the FAA is encouraging drone operators to use their new app called B4UFLY to help curb the growing number of hobby drones that are interfering with wildfire firefighting efforts. The app helps drone operators see if there are any aircraft restrictions in their area before they put up a drone. 

So if you’re a drone owner or operator, think twice before you fly into the sky – especially if you live in an area prone to wildfires. Not only will you be doing a great service to firefighters (who already have a difficult job!), but you’ll avoid the prospect of jail time or a hefty fine (in California, it's up to $27,500 in civil penalties).

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