Recreational drones pose increasing risk to firefighting

Firefighting officials halted aerial drops when drones were spotted, fearing a deadly collision with small craft.
Firefighting officials halted aerial drops when drones were spotted, fearing a deadly collision with small craft. Sacramento Bee file

The rising use of recreational drones has created a dangerous situation for firefighters who say the small unmanned aerial devices are hampering their ability to stop forest fires.

In the past month alone, four drone incursions have halted firefighting activity in California, according to Shawna Legarza director of fire and aviation for the U.S. Forest Service.

Drones can cost less than $100 and are likely being flown over fires by hobbyists. But fire officials say the small devices can ground air tankers and planes carrying firefighters because of their potential to damage large aircraft, especially in a situation where visibility is already reduced due to heavy smoke.

“It’s a hard thing having to ground an aircraft because it affects a lot of people, not just the flight crew,” said Heather Noel, spokeswoman for the Redding office of the U.S. Forest Service.

Wildfire-related drone activity in the last month has included:

  • A reconnaissance plane in the Plumas National Forest grounded for two hours on June 29.
  • A few days prior, air tanker operations were suspended in the Sterling fire and the 31,000-acre Lake fire in the San Bernardino National Forest.
  • A reconnaissance plane flying low at 5,500 feet while looking for new fires in the Plumas National Forest reported a near-hit with a drone.

A drone incursion also shut down activity during last year’s Sand fire in El Dorado County, said Dave Teter, deputy director for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. That fire burned 4,240 acres and 67 structures.

It took nearly 40 minutes to isolate and ground the hobby drone in that instance, Teter said. He did not identify the owner, who was not cited.

“While that operation was suspended, the fire continued to grow and became more difficult to suppress, and more costly to fight,” said Teter.

Airspace over forest fires is restricted, but laws and enforcement remain murky. No drone operator has ever been fined for flying aircraft over a fire, according to Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

Drones pose a particular danger while pilots are delivering smokejumpers, the firefighters who parachute into forest fires. Pilot John Blumm has been delivering smokejumpers for 13 years out of the Redding office of the U.S. Forest Service and sees the latest trend as a dangerous development.

“Encountering a drone as a smokejumper can be lethal,” said Blumm. “People underestimate the physics of drones because drones are small objects.”

Blumm said that a 5-pound drone becomes a deadly object when it hits a plane flying at 130 knots. A drone hit can compromise the airframe and will likely crash through a windshield, he said.

“That can, potentially, incapacitate the crew,” said Blumm, who typically delivers 10 smokejumpers to forest fire locations.

Recreational drone users represent the fastest growing segment of the 176,000-member Academy of Model Aeronautics. For many members, the dangers involved in flying drones around forest fires will be a new issue, said Rich Hansen, director of governmental affairs for AMA.

“Flight restrictions are really geared to the aviation community,” he said. “Your drone enthusiasts? They’re not really pilots – they’re not even aviation people. They’re oblivious to the fact that restrictions have been posted in these fire areas.”

Hansen said that the AMA is partnering with Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the FAA on a website called that seeks to educate drone hobbyists. The organization is also working with drone-makers to include guidelines on drone packaging, Hansen said.

In California, state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, has authored three bills addressing drone use and penalties for misuse.

“Drone technology has gotten ahead of the law,” said Gaines, who represents a vast swath of California forestland in a district that stretches from the Oregon border down to Alpine County. “I’m very concerned about the use of private drones snooping in on fires and preventing firefighters from doing their job and putting their lives at great risk.”

Gaines said he will amend a bill Monday to address unauthorized use of drones over forest fires. That measure, Senate Bill 167, would authorize fines up to $5,000, or up to 6 months in jail. Currently, the maximum fine is $1,000.

Two other Gaines bills would levy fines and possible jail time for unauthorized drone use over prisons and jails, and drone use over schools.

In February, the FAA issued a proposed rule to deal with small drone operations, with a final version expected next year, said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown. The proposed rule would require an operator to maintain a visual line of sight of a small unmanned aircraft and discontinue the flight if it poses a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.

Brown said that the FAA already has existing regulations that restrict the use of aircraft over forest fires. “We consider drones to be aircraft so any restrictions that limit the use of aircraft inherently restrict the use of drones.”

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz