Drone use prevents aerial firefighting efforts

Posted at 11:35 AM, Jun 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-21 13:35:40-04

PINE VALLEY, Utah — On Monday night, all air operations at the Saddle Fire were grounded due to drones in the area.

Fire crews reported a near miss with a drone and a helicopter. People illegally flying the unmanned aircraft around fires are becoming a bigger problem as firefighters work to put out flames.

During wildfires, temporary no-fly zones are put in place to allow firefighting planes to put down retardant. But the increasing use of drones has complicated aerial firefighting efforts.

Caleb White, owner of Quad Capture, has been taking his drone to the sky for years. He uses it to capture a bird’s eye view of breathtaking landscapes.

“Being able to have that perspective, the top down perspective, and the different view of our environment really - it’s a cool thing that not everybody gets to experience,” White said.

While the drones offer a unique perspective, having them in the sky is a serious nuisance for firefighters.

“In the past couple days we’ve had three drone incursions on three fires in Utah. In each case, they had to shut down the aviation operations,” said Samuel Ramsay, Regional Aviation Officer, Intermountain Region US Forest Service. “We’ve already had more drone incursions in the last two weeks than we had all last season."

Getting operations back up and running can take hours. The US Forest Service has this message for those behind the drones: "If you fly, we cant."

“They don’t realize for an aircraft traveling at 200 miles an hour to hit a two pound drone it’s like taking a bullet and shooting it through a cockpit or a stone and throwing it into the engine,” Ramsay said. "Typically, something the size of a drone is invisible to us."

Using a drone in an area where larger aircraft, like planes and helicopters, need to fly puts land, homes, people and pilots in danger.

“You see a fire and you think 'Oh, that would be cool to film from up high,' but they don't consider ... that it's causing these planes to not be able to put the fires out," White said.

White, who is also a pilot, worries those who don't follow the rules create a bad representation of the hobby.

“Without looking into any of that stuff, you’re really ruining the name for everybody else,” White said.

The FAA and Utah both have laws against flying drones in no-fly areas. If you’re caught you could face fines and prison time.