Wednesday, August 15 , 2018, 4:16 pm | Fair 78º


Local News

Fire, Aviation Authorities Raise Concerns Over Unauthorized Drone Usage Around Wildfires

In spite of restrictions and regulations preventing flights, firefighters have increasingly been encountering intrusions

Los Padres National Forest Supervisor Robert Baird speaks as officials from the U.S. Forest Service, Federal Aviation Administration, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and Santa Barbara County Fire Department gathered to call attention to the dangers of drone flights in wildfire areas.
Los Padres National Forest Supervisor Robert Baird speaks as officials from the U.S. Forest Service, Federal Aviation Administration, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and Santa Barbara County Fire Department gathered to call attention to the dangers of drone flights in wildfire areas. (U.S. Forest Service photo)

The significant impacts from drone usage in wildfire areas have raised safety hazard concerns and delayed firefighting aviation operations near or around burn areas.

Information about the importance of restrictions on flying unmanned aircraft systems and nonemergency aircraft in restricted air space, the hazardous consequences on ground firefighters, pilots and the land were provided at a Friday briefing by agency officials.

Officials from the U.S. Forest Service, Federal Aviation AdministrationCalifornia Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and Santa Barbara County Fire Department gathered at the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base to warn drone owners about the potential risks.

Andrew Madsen, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman, said in Central and Southern California there are approximately 58,000 drones registered with the FAA.

“The hobby of private drone flying has taken off in the last few years,” he said. “We’ve seen a rising number of people flying their drones around wildfire operations. They want to be safe and operate safely, but people are unaware of the risk that flying a drone near a wildfire operation has.”

Drones spotted in fire areas have forced authorities to temporarily halt air operations, Madsen said.

“The problem is aviation resources typically fly low to the ground, and it’s a problem when they try to drop their retardant load in the same areas of the drones,” Madsen explained. “They are moving at up to 150 mph and drones are small in the vision to the pilot.”

He said drones could pose a serious potential hazard if it hits the plane’s windshield or gets sucked into an engine.

The FAA does not immediately issue drone regulations operation orders once the fire sparks, Madsen said.

“It takes time to get that order,” he said. “When the fire first breaks out and we are first getting aviation assets on the fire, that’s the period of time we are concerned about.”

Under California law, anyone who flies a drone that endangers a manned aircraft can face fines from the FAA of up to $25,000 as well as criminal penalties.

Charges have been filed recently for violations of unauthorized drone usage in FAA aviation-restricted areas.

Late week, CalFire arrested a drone flier in Northern California.

“Someone was operating a drone in the air space and officials had to shut down the aviation response for over a half-hour,” he said. “That can sometimes be the difference between a fire picking up or having it in control.”

The FAA implemented a temporary flight restriction for the air space around the Sherpa Fire burn zone on the Gaviota coast last month. The restriction applied to all unmanned and manned aircraft in an approximately 15-square-mile area.

“We didn’t see any incidents during the Sherpa Fire,” Madsen said. “People got the safety message from the beginning of that fire: If you fly near, we can’t.”

A drone illegally flew near a firefighting helicopter during the 2,304-acre Pine Fire that burned in the Sespe Wilderness north of Ojai.

“One of our helicopter pilots noticed the drone,” he said. “We talked with him and he understood.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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