The National Interagency Fire Center says unauthorized drones have been detected over or near wildfires 17 times this year in nine western states. Of those incidents, 14 caused aerial firefighting operations to be grounded entirely. In 2016, unauthorized drones cropped up near wildfires more than 40 times, grounding air operations more than half the time.
“Any time an unauthorized drone is detected over or near a fire, it’s a serious situation,” said Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service.
Firefighting tanker pilots who dump water or flame retardant below could crash into drones, or become distracted, and crash into trees. Drones could crash into firefighting aircraft and fall from the sky, hurting or killing firefighters on the ground, she said. It’s also an illegal situation. But Jones said bringing the law to bear is tricky because the challenge is tracking who the drone belongs to.
A recent effort by the Department of the Interior aims to combat drone flights over wildfires by offering near-real time wildfire data to the public. The hope is that drone hobbyists can use the information to steer clear of active wildfires.
In the meantime, land management agencies along with the Federal Aviation Administration are warning the public that drone interference not only put pilots and firefighters on the ground at risk, but also keep fires burning longer.