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Flight risk: Drones pose new obstacles–and opportunities–for firefighters

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This post has been updated

July 2017

Camp Pendleton/Oceanside:
Air drops suspended for an hour.

Lightner Creek fire, CO: Firefighting operations disrupted four times in four days

Prescott Valley, AZ: drones grounded air drops twice in two weeks.

Prosecution: two felony criminal charges brought for endangering 14 aircraft and ground personnel with a “substantial risk of imminent death or physical injury” by flying a drone near or over the fire.

From 2015 to 2016, private drone intrusions over or near wildfires jumped from 12 to 42 reported instances. ~ Interior Department.

Arizona, June 2016 

Williams Fire:  forced to delay helicopter drops due to an unauthorized drone.

Pinal Fire: four separate cases of private drones interfering.

Mayer fire: Private drone halts water drops around a town

Legal misconceptions among drone operators and slowly evolving regulations lead to turbulent skies

Drone hovering in front of burning house

Photo courtesy of Roswell Flight Test Crew, taken in collaboration the LongView Fire Department as part of a training exercise.

It is hard to imagine a more terrifying scenario: hundreds of people abandoning their vehicles and running for safety on a California freeway surrounded by fire. For San Diegans, who have grown accustomed to both large-scale wildfires and grinding traffic delays, the scene from the July 17, 2015 North Fire in San Bernardino County was a particularly ominous reminder of how quickly emergency situations can escalate.

Cajon Pass fire burns cars

Cajon Pass fire burning cars on I-15 in July 2015. REUTERS/NBCLA.COM

Hampered by the gridlocked traffic, responding fire crews were unable to reach the scene in time to stop the fire from sweeping through dozens of deserted vehicles. Meanwhile, aerial firefighting units were facing traffic conditions of their own, as fully loaded air tankers were grounded for 25 minutes due to reports of as many as five hobbyist unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones (UAVs) flying in the vicinity of the fire. Without the means to identify or contact the drones’ operators, officials were forced to let one of their most effective tools sit idle while the fire grew.

See a Drone, Ground Air Attack Planes/Helicopters

Miraculously, no lives were lost and only minor injuries reported. However the 4,250 acre fire ultimately claimed 23 buildings–including 7 homes–and 44 vehicles. While it’s impossible to say what impact the drones’ delay contributed to the total damage, the incident is an ominous sign of what’s ahead.

As head of the Ramona Air Attack Base, CalFire Battalion Chief John Francois coordinates aerial operations across the county and is unequivocal in his assessment of the danger. “If we see an unauthorized UAV, we ground our aircraft. That cripples the firefighters on the ground, potentially losing  homes and and possibly lives.”

Cal Fire over North Fire

Is there a drone in this photo that is going to endanger the firefighting planes below and helicopters below them? How could you tell? Photo courtesy of CAL FIRE Battalion Chief John Francois.

“I’m in the command aircraft, 2,500 feet over the fire, trying to make sure the area is safe for our crews. I’m directing planes below me and helicopters below them. I’m constantly looking for antennae, telephone lines, aircraft – anything that puts our pilots in danger. If there is a drone out there, we can’t see it until it’s too late. If we hit one, it’s going to ‘frag’ the engine and we’re going to possibly lose the plane or helicopter along with their pilots, and anything around that aircraft when it comes down.”

Chief Francois says he is aware of eight incidents this year involving drones interfering with firefighting efforts in California.

“We are seeing more UAVs because they are now affordable and they’re fun. But when there’s an emergency, and your first instinct is to send the drone up to see what’s happening, don’t. If you fly, we can’t.”

Regulations up in the air

Many have condemned the actions of these drone operators as either malicious or reckless – or perhaps just willfully ignorant. In truth, there have been some questions as to which laws are being broken. To clear this up, a formal FAA email warning was sent to registered drone operators on June 29, 2016 stating, “drone operators who interfere with wildfire suppression efforts are subject to civil penalties of up to $27,500 and possible criminal prosecution.” (FireAviation.com)

Drone owners in the U.S. have largely adhered to a common set of guidelines for drones weighing up to 55 pounds: operators must maintain a line of sight with their aircraft, and should avoid flying above 400 feet, or within 5 miles of an airport or similarly restricted airspace.

With no flight training or certification requirements for UAVs, many users operate with no knowledge of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) issued by the FAA to prohibit all air traffic from flying within a seven-mile perimeter around areas such as wildfires.

“We want to get the word out, and we feel that hobbyists may not be getting our message.” says Chief Francois, indicating that air tankers routinely fly well below the 400 ft limit, often releasing their loads as low as 150 ft above the ground.

Whether or not they face criminal prosecution though, rogue drone operators  would likely be on the hook for any damage that resulting from their actions.

“Even after the initial fire is suppressed, drone users need to stay away. CAL FIRE and U.S. Forest Service planes might still be working search and rescue, or mapping the acreage area with helicopters, which can drop to 150 feet if they need to look at an area.“

Don't Fly Drones Here Map

Drone communities self police to the best of their abilities. They have developed a site to let drone users know what areas are off limits to drones, and allow people to submit data to be added.

Legislation looms

According to the California penal code 148, someone who “prevents others from assisting in extinguishing a fire” is guilty of a misdemeanor, can be jailed for a year, and pay a fine of $1,000. Those who suffer losses due to this negligence could then sue for compensation, potentially bankrupting the drone user.

In this fast moving debate California legislators passed legislation (Senate Bill 168) giving first responders immunity for damaging any drone deemed to be dangerous in or around an emergency. “An emergency responder shall not be liable for any damage to an unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system, if the damage was caused while the emergency responder was providing, and the unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system was interfering with, the operation, support, or enabling of the emergency services listed in Section 853 of the Government Code.”

Additional bills are pending to further define legal non-commercial drone activity.

Putting drones to work

While firefighters are bracing for more drone encounters this fire season, a silver lining may be emerging: drones used to save lives. Dozens of fire departments across the country have reportedly begun adding UAVs – both large and small – to their array of tools. In May, firefighters in Joshua, Texas used their drone to deliver a lifeline rope to a couple stranded by flood waters. In a similar situation earlier this month, a drone was used to fly a life jacket out to an 18-year-old boy stranded on a rock in the middle of rushing waters before a rescue was attempted.  And, as recently as July 29, while responding to a house fire in Orland Park, Illinois, firefighters used a drone to quickly assess the situation. As Orland Fire Protection District Chief Ken Brucki told reporters:

“It was a very large home and the drone helped give us an immediate, aerial view of the property and the fire, and assisted the Battalion Chief to direct suppression efforts to bring the fire under control.”

Even Cal Fire has reportedly benefitted from UAV technology as far back as 2007, utilizing a NASA high-altitude, Predator-style drone for reconnaissance missions.

Yet, for all of the promise of UAV technology, the frightening reality is that no matter how many new laws or technical solutions are implemented, rogue drones are likely going to pose a risk to our firefighters for years to come. One has to wonder if the next generation firefighting technology will include drone jammers.

Air drop planes reload at Ramona Air Attack Base for the North Fire

Air drop planes refuel at Ramona Air Attack Base. Photo Courtesy of of CalFire Battalion Chief John Francois.

Links to help if you want to fly drones