In more than a dozen instances this year, aerial firefighting operations have been suspended because reckless operators of recreational drones were buzzing around wildfires, apparently seeking viral YouTube fame or hoping to cash in by selling dramatic footage to television producers.
In August, eight helicopters and six air tanker skimmers were grounded for five hours – 14 aircraft brought down by the presence of a toy drone – when they could have been fighting the Testalinda Creek fire which scorched more than 4,000 hectares in southern British Columbia near Oliver. Earlier in the summer, a drone forced a helicopter down at the Westside Road wildfire in West Kelowna, B.C. along Okanagan Lake.
In the U.S., the Forest Service said unmanned aircraft interfered with 13 wildfires thus far this year.
Northeast of Los Angeles, Calif., in July, five drones were reported in the airspace around a wildfire that jumped across the I-15 interstate highway and engulfed 30 vehicles. The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department said one drone even trailed a spotter plane into the fire zone area. Firefighters turned on helicopter sirens, and three drones departed the scene, but two remained and the firefighting aircraft had to be grounded for 25 minutes while the fire raged.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection pilot Jason Thrasher, ferrying seven firefighters to a Nevada City blaze last year, had to take evasive action at 500 feet altitude when a four-rotor drone suddenly appeared 10 feet from his helicopter windscreen. “If that drone came through my windshield, I have no idea what could have happened,” Thrasher said. “If that drone hits my tail rotor, for sure it’s going to be catastrophic.”
Some experts predict 2015 will top 2006 as the worst fire year ever. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reports that through August 6,669 fires burned nearly four million hectares, nearly twice as much land area as the 10-year average. B.C. and Alberta bear the brunt. In the U.S., nearly eight million acres have been destroyed, an area about the size of Massachusetts, in more than 43,000 fires.
Thrill-seeking drone operators have introduced a dangerous new element into firefighting and other first responder emergency situations. They cost taxpayer money when legitimate aircraft are grounded (CAD $35,000 daily plus $13,000 per flying hour). And they endanger lives and property while illegally intruding into restricted airspace.
Sterling Cripps, president of Canadian Unmanned Inc. in Alberta, who has trained more than 800 unmanned air vehicle students, including 250 police and first responders, calls the hobbyist drone operators “shameless and selfish.” They have “a complete disregard for the safety of the public and those on the front line looking after containing fires.”
Wildfire areas are already flight-restricted zones, whether for drones or general aviation aircraft. In Canada, the radius is five nautical miles around the fire to an altitude of 915 metres above ground level. California has launched an education campaign, “If you fly, we can’t,” and B.C. officials plan something similar.
But legislators on both sides of the border are also advocating toughening penalties for drone operators who venture into restricted areas. The current maximum fine is $25,000 and up to 18 months in jail. Morris said he’d like to see even stiffer punishments.
In the States, Congressman Paul Cook, representing Apple Valley, Calif., introduced a law that would make it a federal offense to fly over a forest fire with a fine and prison term up to five years. State legislators in California also want to grant immunity to emergency responders who may “damage” drones during fire or rescue operations.
There are, however, potential positive uses of unmanned aircraft for firefighters. The U.S. Department of the Interior recently tested a Boeing ScanEagle drone during a forest fire in Olympic National Park, using infrared video to guide water-dropping helicopters to high-priority target areas. Using heat signatures, drones might also be used for search-and-rescue missions, especially at night or in smoky conditions. “We have to determine how we’ll safely integrate these things into our existing tactical aircraft fire traffic area,” said Brad Koeckeritz, the Interior’s national unmanned aircraft specialist.
And establish just how to keep amateur droneheads out of professional airspace.
Rick Adams is chief perspectives officer of AeroPerspectives, an aviation communications consultancy based in the south of France, and is editor of ICAO Journal. He has been writing about technology and training for 30 years.
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