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As we head into wildfire season, there’s a new worry for firefighters – as well as for all of us.
What started out as a toy and morphed into an awesome gizmo is on its way to becoming an aerial killing machine.
In Holy Jim Canyon last month, hobby drones stymied helicopters trying to snuff out a 155-acre wildfire.
From California to Alaska, according to officials, drones this year have impeded aerial firefighting at least a dozen times.
“There have been drone incursions all over the state,” Orange County Fire Authority Battalion Chief Craig Covey said. “We get helicopters taken out all the time by birds.
“If we’re worried about running into a bird, think about what a drone with four propellers could do.”
Because of hot, fast-moving Santa Ana winds that typically blow during October and November, U.S. Forest Service officials warn the next two months are especially worrisome.
“We’re extra vigilant,” said Jake Rodriguez, forest service public information officer. “What we’ve seen this season so far, is very extreme fire behavior.”
The long drought combined with beetle-infested trees has created particularly volatile fuel conditions.
Flames shot up as high as 100 feet during the Cajon Pass fire in mid-August, Rodriguez said. Thirty-five square miles burned in a single day.
Department of Interior officials report that more than 30,000 wildfires this year have burned more than 2.7 million acres.
A drone that costs as little as $500 could cost you your home – or your life.
Putting a video camera on the belly of what amounts to a miniature helicopter may sound nuts, but it can be very cool.
Lifeguards use drones to watch for sharks. Businesses use drones for planning. Real estate agents use drones to market properties. Outdoor enthusiasts capture beautiful landscapes.
But no matter how tempting it may be to deploy a drone, civilian machines don’t belong in a situation that requires police or firefighters.
One first responder echoed a common refrain, telling drone fans, “If you fly, we can’t.”
“Drones interrupted air efforts in three California fires,” writes Mark Bathrick, director of aviation services for the Department of the Interior, “including in Kern County, where a blaze destroyed more than 150 homes and killed an elderly couple.
“Drones grounded aircraft five times on the Saddle fire in Utah in late June,” Bathrick continued, “as the blaze burned remote terrain inaccessible to ground forces, threatened communities and prompted the evacuation of 500 homes.”
Last year, Bathrick said, a drone prompted firefighters to abandon aerial efforts while the North fire burned over I-15, and set several cars ablaze.
Drones can knock out an aircraft windshield or get sucked into an intake, Covey said. “Drones compromise our ability to save lives and property.”
Air support, the Orange County Fire Authority air operations chief explained, is often critical to fighting fires, especially in wildland areas. In the recent Holy Jim fire, helicopters held the line while ground crews worked their way into steep wilderness.
During the 2007 Santiago wildfire that burned 29,000 acres, a dozen firefighters had to deploy fire-resistant sacks when they became surrounded by flames. Without helicopters dropping water, Covey said, they could have died.
If drones existed then, the outcome would have been – well, let’s not go there.
BEEFING UP LAWS
Almost as soon as a fire starts, something called a Temporary Flight Restriction is established by the Federal Aviation Administration. It means that nothing without permission – including drones – can fly in a specified area.
Acreage varies, but typically an area will cover 5 square miles or more.
During the Holy Jim fire, Rodriguez said, “There were drones flying over our helicopters at Dove Lake.”
Choppers were prevented from scooping water out of the reservoir in Dove Canyon – not just once, but twice – during the battle.
The FAA is investigating the incidents. Regulations allow fines up to $20,000.
In Utah, legislators approved laws that allow first responders to stop drones, even if it means damaging the machine.
In Sacramento, two bills follow Utah’s approach have been signed by the governor. AB1680 makes it a crime for the operator of a drone to interfere with efforts to fight fires. SB807 allows firefighters to damage drones that impede firefighting efforts.
The Orange County Fire Authority board supports the bills. Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a board member, noted, “Drones completely jeopardize the safety of the pilot in the aircraft and, if a helicopter goes down, seriously jeopardize the people on the ground.
“The sooner we get on a fire with aircraft that can draw significant amounts of water, the better off we are.”
According to the Interior Department, drones intruding into firefighting areas doubled from 2014 to 2015. But help might be on the way.
Interior Department officials said they are partnering with drone manufacturers to create virtual fences around wildfires.
The idea is a “warning system that provides real-time alerts and geo-fencing alarms to prevent drone pilots from interfering with firefighting operations.”
One of the biggest challenges for pilots dumping water and fire retardant, is that drones are so small they are nearly impossible to see.
Remember: If you fly, they can’t.