It’s understandable that UAV enthusiasts might be tempted to grab amazing footage of ongoing disasters like the northern California wildfires — providing a unique perspective of a climate change-fuelled catastrophe which has now killed at least 41 people, burned down thousands of buildings and laid waste to hundreds of thousands of acres of land.
But with over 11,000 firefighters and other emergency personnel deployed to the region to try and curb the ongoing devastation, the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration is warning that drones violating flight restrictions pose a safety risk to those personnel and hurt fire control efforts. According to CNBC, the FAA says it has learned of at least two incidents in which drone pilots flew over restricted fire zones.
“Over the years, we have seen this problem become a trend,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant told CNBC. “When drones are flying in the same airspace we’re trying to use firefighting aircraft, like helicopters and air tankers, for the safety of our pilots we’ve got to pull those aircraft out of the sky and land them.”
Berlant added, “The potential for a fire to grow larger and do more damage during the time we can’t use firefighting aircraft while that drone is in that area exists.”
Authorities often mark areas where fires are spreading with temporary flight restrictions, allowing nobody but emergency personnel to fly through the area. Aircraft dropping chemicals, retardants and water on fires often need to fly low enough that they could risk colliding with unauthorised drones — and as the FAA notes, even small birds can already damage aircraft.
In at least one of the recent incidents, according to CNBC, the Petaluma Police Department announced a drone had flown near the Petaluma Airport, forcing the grounding of helicopters helping control fires in Sonoma and Napa counties; the pilot said he was unaware his flight path was illegal.
The U.S. Forest Service told the Wall Street Journal in 2016 that by July that year, it was already aware of at least six times fire control aircraft were grounded due to drones. In 2015, California firefighters had to abort a mission to dump 40,882l of retardant due to drones, costing around $US15,000 ($19,113).
Drones can be useful to emergency personnel — but if you’re piloting an aircraft, you have a responsibility to be aware of when it’s appropriate (and legal) to do so. The FAA maintains an app called B4UFLY where drone operators can check for local restrictions before taking off, as well as catalogues numerous types of flight restrictions on its website including temporarily restricted zones. People are dying; don’t be that jerk.