In the Heat of the Moment, Drones Are Getting in the Way of Firefighters

Soon after the Lake Fire started last month, it threatened hundreds of homes. Fire officials in Southern California’s San Bernardino National Forest, where the wildfire raged, responded quickly by sending helicopters and more than a thousand firefighters to combat the blaze.

NPR reports,

Mike Eaton was one of the pilots called upon to help fight the fire. On the evening of June 24, he recalls, they noticed a drone. The aerial attack was immediately called off, out of fear of a midair collision; the three air tankers attacking the Lake Fire were parked the rest of the day. And the fire grew as a result.

What Eaton and his fellow firefighters confronted wasn’t uncommon. At least five times this summer — and once this week — aerial firefighting operations in the West have had to be shut down because officials deemed nearby drones a threat to the planes and helicopters that drop water and retardant on fires.

And pilots like Eaton deem it no idle threat. Flying over wildfires is considered the most dangerous type of flight there is, outside of aerial combat. Robert West, who’s been doing this for 44 years, says that trying to spot tiny unmanned aircraft makes the job even more difficult.

“We usually have visibility problems anyway, with the smoke and keeping track of our lead planes and helicopters on the fire, let alone look out for a drone,” West says. “And by the time we probably saw something, if it was very small, we couldn’t do anything about it. It’d just be there.”

Those fears have very real consequences. In 2014, there were four known instances of drones interfering with aerial firefighting operations. That’s when people like Aitor Bidaburu began to worry.

“If we are putting the firefighters in a place where they can’t fully engage the fire because they don’t have the tools that they need, and the fires are gonna get worse and threaten communities, I think that’s a big issue,” he says.

Bidaburu is a wildland fire program manager with the U.S. Fire Administration in Boise, Idaho. He, like many in his line of work, thinks most of the problems are caused by hobbyists who just don’t understand the rules.

The Federal Aviation Administration says that it, too, prefers to focus on outreach right now, though a spokesman points out that the maximum fine for flying drones too close to fires is $25,000. And now, two California lawmakers have introduced a bill that would allow firefighters to destroy nearby unmanned aircraft.

The bill has skeptics, however.

“Nobody knows what it would look like if you would take a drone out of the sky right away,” [New York Times reporter Jenny] Medina says, “the mechanics of how it would play out and how it would work.”

And, she says, there are others who defend the use of drones for getting people a view of these wildfires that they might not have otherwise.

The issue is one the drone industry is watching. Some companies provide FAA literature on safe flying in drone packaging. Others, though, say that using cloud-based technology to teach unmanned aircraft where they should and shouldn’t fly is a better solution.

Legislation enacted in 2015 made Maryland one of only three states to grant the state government exclusive power to regulate drone usage, preempting municipalities and counties from enacting their own ordinances. MACo opposed this legislation as a preemption of county authority and was able to secure an amendment to assess the need for new laws or local tools after three years of industry maturation.

MACo, along with the Maryland State Police, are among the stakeholders charged with evaluating any safety or security problems arising from drone use as the industry expands in the years ahead. The stakeholder group will report its findings to the governor in 2018.

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