“If you fly, we can’t.” – That is the simple message the country’s wildland firefighters are trying to share with drone operators across the nation. It seems, however, that the message isn’t getting through to some. Heliweb Magazine reported on an incident in July 2017 that took place during the Goodwin Fire in Prescott Arizona. That incident involving the repeated use of a drone to film fires and the aircraft fighting them that resulted in the subsequent grounding of fourteen aerial firefighting aircraft, including several helicopters. The end result; a small victory for firefighting aircraft that serves as a warning to others wanting to fly inside an area covered by a TFR intended to protect firefighting operations as the drone operator now faces fourteen felony endangerment charges, one for each aircraft affected by the grounding order.
THE GOODWIN FIRE
How big is the drone problem for America’s wildland firefighters? Well in the case of the Goodwin fire, that sadly was not the only drone flying over the fire, it was, however, the only operator to lead investigators right to his door after posting images obtained during the illegal flight operations on his website that now serve as evidence in the case against him. Since we reported on the incident during the Goodwin fire, there have been an additional four documented cases of drones flying over wildland fires where there was an active aerial firefighting effort underway – three of which affected firefighting efforts.
So how big of a problem are drones to aerial firefighting? To find out, we reached out to the U.S. Forestry Service looking for answers. The numbers don’t lie, and when taken in their full context, show the real scope of the issue our country’s wildland firefighters are facing.
AN ONGOING PROBLEM
In 2017 alone, to date, there have been seventeen documented instances of unauthorized drone flights over, or near wildfires in nine states. With documented incidents occurring in the states of Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Washington that have brought aerial firefighting operations to a halt a total of fourteen times.
Despite the efforts of various government agencies attempting to combat the issue through public information campaigns in a state and federal capacity, these incidents continue to occur. In 2016, forty documented instances of drone flights over or near wildfires in twelve states were recorded in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. These flights resulted in interruptions of aerial firefighting operations more than twenty times. Although there is no tally kept on what impact to the environment the grounding of aircraft to fight the fires causes, the cost is likely substantial as acres and acres burn until it can be confirmed that the drone that caused the grounding has left the area. In many cases, ground firefighting operations have to also be suspended once air support is grounded for the safety of the ground crews who do not have support from above should they become caught in a rapidly growing fire that can easily surround crews as a wind shift occurs.
So what has been done to date to help combat the issue? The federal government has taken two distinct approaches to try and stem the ever-increasing danger to aerial firefighting operations. Earlier this year the FAA began placing TFRs over and around active wildfires in an effort to stem the growing number of drone flights, although the response has only had effect with those that actively monitor communications and notifications on drone operations and has had little effect on the consumer market, that despite numerous warnings throughout packaging and manuals that warn of regulations being in place that must be followed, are still continually ignored by recreational users. Federal agencies have continued to urge the public not to fly drones over or near wildfires even in the absence of a TFR due to the risk factors and the potential consequences relating to the disruption of suppression operations.
The other approach taken by the feds is a proactive one, that includes making information about TFRs readily available to the public, in ways never done before. One such method comes from the US Department of the Interior in partnership with other federal, state, and local agencies dubbed “Current Wildland Fires.” This location data sharing program was designed to inform drone operators areas to avoid flying over or near. Another tool made available to drone operators comes in an “app” form and is called B4UFLY. This phone app, created by the FAA, is available on both Apple and Android platforms and is free.
While there have been no known documented cases of a drone or UAV maliciously trying to endanger an aircraft, the intention behind a drone incursion makes the situation no less dangerous. “Most members of the public would never dream of standing in front of a fire engine to stop it from getting to a wildfire, but that’s essentially what they’re doing to aerial firefighting aircraft when they fly a drone over or near a wildfire,” said Dan Buckley, Chair of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
What is worth noting in this article is that nationwide, many agencies have added drones into their daily operations. For Fire Departments outside of the busy wildland season part of the nation, where firefighting aircraft are very rare, a drone, especially one fitted with thermal cameras can be very beneficial for operations. Many rural departments and agencies who are struggling just to stay afloat as it is just don’t have helicopter operations in their budgets. Obviously, an agency using a drone for official purposes is a huge difference from a civilian drone wondering into an active fire scene to satisfy their curiosity. Although drone incursions are nothing new, there seems to be a lot of untested waters legally. Rivera v. Foley showed an impressive trend to side with the agency having jurisdiction after a journalist attempted to sue a police officer and department for having his drone grounded while recording above a traffic incident. Although this case didn’t go to trial, the department requested a motion to dismiss the case and the judge granted it, thus siding with the agency having jurisdiction.
Heliweb Magazine has compiled data from all the incursions that have affected aerial firefighting operations in the year 2017 to date.
Starting with the Fambro Fire located near Abilene, Texas, February 23, 2017, where two Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) were diverted 5 miles out of the area when a drone was spotted operating in their airspace. Both SEAT aircraft were ready to drop fire retardant when the drone was discovered. At the time of the incursion, the crews were still conducting their initial attack and a TFR had not yet been established.
On March 20, 2017, while conducting a prescribed burn in the Ozark and Saint Francis National Forest in Arkansas, a drone was spotted by ground crews who were working in the area. A Plastic Sphere Dispensing helicopter was grounded for the remainder of the day. This interruption caused approximately 700 acres of wild lands to be unburned during the day. There was no TFR in place as this was a prescribed burn, not an active fire response.
On May 20, 2017, at the Pinal Fire in the Tonto National Forest near Globe, Arizona a particularly alarming incident happened when a drone was spotted operating 60 yards from the helibase approximately 50 feet above ground level directly in the flight path of returning helicopters. One Helicopter was currently flying a mission above the fire when the drone was spotted. The helicopter was not allowed to return to the helibase until ground crews were certain the drone was out of the area. Local Law Enforcement was called and the drone operator was found, and the drone was confiscated and the owner was cited.
On June 13, 2017, at the Douglas Fire located near Oceanside, California, a drone was spotted flying approximately 200 feet above the fire area. Ground personnel described a red and white drone, however, there was never a visual made by air resources. Four air tankers and two helicopters were operating in the area at the time. The air tankers were notified to return to base and the helicopters landed at a safe location, the crews were interrupted for more than thirty minutes before being allowed to return to fire suppression.
On June 15, 2017, a fire was reported on Cemetery Hill in Williams, Arizona burning a quarter mile from multiple structures and residences. A Type-1 helicopter was called from the Williams Airport to respond, and as that helicopter was preparing to launch a report from ground crews of a drone flying over the fire area came in. The helicopter was ordered to hold at the airport for more than an hour. The drone disappeared and the operator was never found.
On June 17, 2017, while operating at the Cajete fire near Santee Fe, New Mexico an Air Attack aircraft who was operating at 11,500 feet observed a red drone in close proximity to the Leadplane who was operating at around 10,000 feet or below. The Leadplane was forced to abort tanker activities and released all firefighting aircraft to search for the unidentified aircraft. This caused a one-hour delay in firefighting operations, the drone nor its operator were ever found.
On June 23, 2017, while operating at the Bonita Fire near Taos, New Mexico, a ground crew spotted a drone flying in the fire area where two Air Attacks and three helicopters were working. As a safety precaution, the three helicopters were returned to their airbase at Taos Airport and the Air Attack aircraft remained in the area attempting to locate the drone. The drone nor operator was found and after an hour of no sightings, the three helicopters were allowed to return to firefighting operations.
On June 25, 2017, while operating at the Boundary Fire located near Flagstaff, Arizona, an Air Attack aircraft was providing aerial supervision when a drone incursion occurred within two hundred feet of the aircraft. All flight operations were immediately shut down, the drone and operator were never found.
On June 27, 2017, while operating at the Power Fire located near Mormon Lake, Arizona, after resupplying, a Helitack crew member saw a small white object hovering the east side of the fire. The Helitack crew was ordered to land at the dip site. It is unclear if the drone or operator was ever found. Reports show that there was no Temporary Flight Restriction in place, but the drone was estimated to be inside Class D airspace without coordination with air traffic control, and the drone’s altitude was estimated to be around two thousand feet, well above the authorized max altitude of four hundred feet.
On June 28, 2017, at the Goodwin Fire located near Prescott, Arizona, a drone was spotted roughly five hundred feet below the supervisor’s air attack aircraft. This grounded fourteen firefighting aircraft, including five helicopters, three large air tankers, and five heavy air tankers. The drone operator was found and charged with fourteen felony counts of endangerment. The drone was estimated to be operating at 10,500AGL, with the highest terrain in the TFR around 8,000 feet putting the drone well outside of the 400-foot max allowable operating altitude.
On June 28, 2017, at the Lightner Creek Fire located near Durango, Colorado, ground resources notified aircrews of a confirmed drone incursion inside their Temporary Flight Restriction area. Both fixed wing and rotor wing firefighting aircraft were ordered out of the air, suspending aerial fire suppression activities.
On June 30, 2017, at the Lookout Fire located around North Las Vegas, Nevada, during a Helitack bucket operation in an AS350B3, ground personnel spotted a drone operating in the area and reported the incursion halting all air operations. Ground personnel were able to locate the drone operator and notified them about the dangers of flying in the area of air operations. Law Enforcement was not notified in this case and there were no Temporary Flight Restrictions in place.
On July 1, 2017, at the Lightner Creek Fire located near Durango, Colorado, the Air Attack Group Supervisor (ATGS) was notified that local Law Enforcement had spotted a drone flying towards the fire area. An Air Attack aircraft was operating at 9500 feet and was instructed by the ATGS to climb to 10500 feet (highest area of the fire was 8300 feet). Planned helicopter operations that were about to launch were held at the helibase until the situation was resolved. All crews monitored the area and after an hour of no additional sightings, the airspace was deemed safe to resume operations. The drone operator was never found, the Durango Police Department still has an open investigation into the incident.
On July 4, 2017, at the Silver Dollar Fire located near Wenatchee, Washington, the Air Attack Group Supervisor noticed an “object” over the south-east corner of the fire area. The ATGS monitored the object and determined it was a drone. Two helicopters who were working fire suppression operations were grounded for an unspecified amount of time. It is unclear from the documentation provided if the drone operator was ever found.
On July 4, 2017, at the Eagle Fire located near Riverside, California, there were two incursions that happened during this day, the first one grounding four Air Tankers after a drone was spotted flying at 3000 feet AGL. There were helicopters operating in a different area that who were deemed a safe distance from the incursion to continue working. The second incursion of the day happened after all fire aircraft had departed. The documentation provided did not show the length of time that fire suppression was affected by the incursion or if the drone operator was ever found.
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