Here’s Why Drones and Firefighters Can’t Share the Same Sky

The air space over a fire scene is limited. There isn't room for everyone. Image courtesy U.S. Forest Service The air space over a fire scene is limited. There isn't room for everyone. Image courtesy U.S. Forest Service
The air space over a fire scene is limited. There isn't room for everyone. Image courtesy U.S. Forest Service

California firefighters are dealing with a rash of drone activity near wildfires as gawkers record the conflagrations with cameras mounted on drones (also called unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs). Although the footage these aerial cameras capture is undoubtedly jaw-dropping, so too is the ignorance of the drone owners, as they violate airspace above emergencies and delay firefighting efforts.

Near the Cajon Pass, a July fire swept over the 15 Freeway, incinerating vehicles and threatening lives. Five airborne firefighting units were delayed by more than 15 minutes — and forced to return to the ground — because of multiple drones circling the area. Two drone operators were so bold that they even followed responder aircraft.

In the San Bernardino National Forest, more than 1,000 firefighters battled June's enormous Lake Fire. But three of their firefighting tankers were grounded for a day due to drone interference, allowing the fire to spread.

“In San Bernardino County alone, there have been five times on four different fires that unmanned aircraft have impeded firefighting operations,” says Tracey Martinez in an email. Martinez is the public information officer for the San Bernardino County fire department. Fortunately, in that county there have been no injuries to date. 

Fire officials are infuriated by drones that interrupt their operations. Because of smoke, flames and visibility problems, this kind of aerial firefighting is extremely dangerous for pilots. Drones only make flights riskier.

Recreational drones record spectacular and informational perspectives on everything from fireworks shows to farmers' fields to raging wildfires. In that last case, firefighters increasingly use drones to track fires and plot their counterattacks. But airspace is getting more crowded as hobbyist drones lurk above fire scenes, causing exasperation and worry for first responders and government officials.  

Drones range in size, shape and purpose. Some are just a few inches wide. Others have wingspans of several feet and weigh in excess of 20 pounds (9 kilograms). Although Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules prohibit hobbyists from flying drones higher than 400 feet (122 meters), many operators send their contraptions thousands of feet high and directly into the flight paths of manned aircraft. In short, larger and more powerful drones are big enough (and fly high enough) to damage or crash firefighting aircraft and subsequently kill firefighters and bystanders in the process.

Following repeated conflicts with drones, San Bernardino County firefighters began offering $25,000 rewards for information leading to the capture of drone owners who got in the way during three separate fires. The county sheriff held a press conference condemning pilots who buzz fire scenes with their UAVs.

California legislators followed suit, introducing a bill that would grant firefighters immunity if they happen to damage drones hovering near emergency scenes. It's not hard to imagine furious firefighters blasting drones using high-powered blasts of water, and that's exactly what happened at a Connecticut house fire in February 2014. You can see the footage of this incident on YouTube.

You can hardly blame firefighters for wanting to strike down drones. Failed water drops cost tens of thousands of dollars in wasted taxpayer money, including discarded flame retardant and fuel costs. More importantly, these situations put lives and property at risk.

According to Martinez, when drones intrude on a dangerous scene, police officers attempt to deal with drone owners directly, if it's possible to find them.

For now, Martinez and firefighters everywhere have a simple request. “Until there is legislation passed, we ask that drones and unmanned aircraft stay clear and allow firefighters to perform their job.”