Home Emergency Management News Drones Clash with Firefighting Efforts

Drones Clash with Firefighting Efforts

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By the time a plume of smoke was reported nine miles west of Espanola on Monday afternoon, the Chicoma Fire was already five acres strong.

Within the next hour, air tankers already were dropping fire retardant in the area. That is, until crews spotted a drone in the area.

All planes were ordered to the ground.

Drones and other unmanned aircraft cause consistent issues for wildland firefighting officials who don't allow their planes or helicopters to battle a blaze when unidentified aircraft are in their airspace.

In posters, in news releases, in videos and in interviews, the U.S. Forest Service has tried to get one message across:

"If you fly, we can't."

It's not just a slogan; it's increasingly serious business -- particularly when jumping on a budding fire like the Chicoma requires air resources and good timing.

"When the aircraft are grounded for any reason, the crew really loses access to that valuable resource, which can affect the safety and efficiency of the overall firefighting efforts," said Anna Bouchonville, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe National Forest. In addition to dropping water or fire retardant, Bouchonville said: "They're the eyes in the sky. They're really the lookouts."

Unauthorized drone operators don't have contact or communication with the crews working on a fire, so firefighters don't have an idea where a drone is flying, or at what altitude, she continued. That means a plane could hit a drone and cause a potentially catastrophic accident.

"Drones over fires risk firefighter safety, interrupt our air operations and compromise our ability to suppress wildfires," Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor James Melonas said in a news release.

Although crews were still able to get control of the Chicoma Fire, which burned 42 acres and was 100 percent contained as of Wednesday evening, Melonas stressed firefighting teams cannot afford drone interruptions as fire season heats up.

"... As we get hotter and drier, the impacts of stopping air operations during a fire will increase significantly," Melonas said.

Drone interruptions are a constant issue nationwide. And Bouchonville said they seem to be getting worse -- affecting local firefighting operations at least three times since the start of 2017.

In addition to the Chicoma Fire, the Bonita Fire in the Carson National Forest and the Cajete Fire in the Santa Fe National Forest both saw interference from drones last year.

Nationally, the U.S. Forest Service has tallied 38 drone intrusions through October of 2017 Bouchonville said. Twenty-seven of those, she said, grounded air operations.

Flying a drone without permission over a wildfire violates a federal law that prohibits interfering with firefighting efforts, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. There also are specific Bureau of Land Management regulations, potential state and local laws and temporary flight restrictions that could come into play, Bouchonville said.

All told, she said, drone fliers could face up to criminal and civil penalties, and up to $25,000 in fines.

But who actually flies these drones?

Elizabeth Armijo, who works in the front office at Del Sol Aviation, a flight training center in Albuquerque, said plenty of people own and fly them. Realtors, researchers and even roofers use them for work, she said.

Others do it for the scenery.

"A lot of people just do it because they like the view," Armijo said. " ... Or because they're fun to operate and you can get some really cool videos out of it."

If a drone flier decides to operate over a wildfire without permission, Bouchonville said, local law enforcement has the ability to track the offender down. In some cases, it's U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers. In others, local sheriff's deputies take on the task.

Last fall, deputies from the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office in Arizona tracked down a 54-year-old man suspected of repeatedly flying over the Goodwin Fire that burned more than 28,000 acres of the Prescott National Forest north of Phoenix.

The man was arrested and charged with endangerment and unlawful operation of an unmanned aircraft, the Arizona Republic reported. The man also had aerial drone photographs of the fire on his website, according to the newspaper. Charges against the man were later dismissed, but they could be refiled, according to The Associated Press.

As for the drone pilot who interrupted the Chicoma Fire, Bouchonville said, he or she was nowhere to be found.

 

This article is written by Sami Edge from The Santa Fe New Mexican and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.