SANTA MARIA, Calif. – Drones may be fun to fly, and the images they produce can be breathtaking. But when they’re flown near a wildfire, drones can also be extremely dangerous.
“(Drones) put everybody at risk, the ground firefighters due to the fire behavior, the aviation, the aerial firefighters,” Los Padres National Forest supervisor Robert Baird. “The aerial firefighters could have a mid-air collision, either with the drone or another aircraft.”
On Friday, several firefighting agencies from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties held a press conference at the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base to inform the public on the dangers of unmanned aircraft systems (drones) pose during at wildfires.
“We’re concerned that we’re going to have a problem over a wildfire,” said Baird. “In 2016 alone, there’s been 14 known intrusions into the airspace, the temporary flight restricted space over wildfires this year.”
With firefighting aircraft flying between 150 to 500 feet above ground at high speeds, a collision with a drone could have deadly consequences.
“If we came upon a drone, there’s no time to react or avoid a collision,” said air attack supervisor Mark Nunez. “And that collision could impact the windshield, it could impact flight controls. A drone could go into engine and cause you to flame out and lose an engine and lose power, and all those things have a high consequence and potential for catastrophe.”
While the FAA has banned the use of unmanned aircraft near wildfires, violations are happening, including four in California within a five-day period in June.
“When that happens, we have to stop aviation operations to clear out and make sure that often 20 minutes or later, that the risk is clear,” said Baird.
Stopping air attack operations during a wildfire could have a catastrophic impact, which was fortunately avoided last month during the Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County, where over a million gallons of retardant was dropped.
“If we would have had to shut down that fire, particularly in the first or second night, it would have been disastrous for us,” said chief Eric Peterson, Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “We needed air support when that main firefight was happening. We needed every bit of it and if there had been just a single drone flight and we had to ground our aircraft, it would have had very negative results on the ultimate outcome of that fire.”
Last week, a man flying a drone in northern California was arrested for interfering with firefighting operations in Placer County. That particular arrest was the first ever in state history.
“It’s a penal code violation, interfering with firefighting operations, it’s a very serious offense and we don’t take it very lightly,” said San Luis Obispo CalFire unit chief Scott Jalbert.
According to the FAA, anyone who flies a drone near a wildfire faces civil penalties of up to $27,500, as well as possible criminal prosecution.
Knowing all the consequences of flying a drone near a wildfire, the message for drone users should be clear.
“If you’re anywhere in the vicinity of a wildfire, a new emerging wildfire, or one that’s been going on for several days, do not operate a drone,” said Nunez.