Drones pose new obstacles–and opportunities–for firefighters
Legal misconceptions among drone operators and slowly evolving regulations lead to turbulent skies
Drone takes video of a house fire. Photo courtesy of Roswell Flight Test Crew and 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 North Fire in San Bernardino County was a particularly ominous reminder of how quickly emergency situations can escalate.
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.
A growing concern
Miraculously, no lives were lost and only minor injuries reported due to the North Fire. 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.”
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."
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