FirebreakConsumer Drones and Wildfires—The Dark Side

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), better known as drones, have become the rage of photographers, cinematographers, and hobbyists. While larger, more sophisticated drones are widely used by the military, small consumer drones are intended primarily for aerial photography and videography.

They are big fun, and they are everywhere.

Unfortunately, drones are also wreaking havoc with wildland firefighters and fire suppression activities, endangering lives and property.

The Drone Menace Is upon Us

For the last four years, incident commanders and fire managers have had to contend with half-wit, crayon-eating boobs who fly their consumer drones into the federally restricted airspace around wildfires, adding another wrinkle to an already dangerous situation.

Small (55 lbs. max.) consumer drones fly at very low levels and are primarily used to take stunning aerial photographs. Fire suppression fixed-wing and helicopter assets also fly at extremely low levels, usually in smoky, windy, and turbulent conditions to transport crews to different locations and to drop water or retardant on wildfires. Because drones are so small, they are nearly impossible to see. Having one buzz around a wildfire creates a mid-air collision environment that endangers the lives of the pilots and crews in the aircraft and personnel on the ground.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, unauthorized drone flights in fires from Alaska to California have suspended firefighting air operations more than 15 times already.

If one of those little plastic whirly-gigs got sucked up into the air intake of an Erickson S-64F Air-crane Helitanker or a Douglas DC-6 tanker loaded with over 2000 gallons of fire retardant, it could drop the aircraft like Ali did Liston.

When drones are sighted, air operations stop. Suspended air ops can delay suppression activities and increase the cost of fighting the fire. The fire can move into new terrain. Structures can be lost. Ground crews can be trapped.

Bang, Bang, Shoot ‘Em Down

Despite violating federal statutes and risking heavy penalties ($25,000 and/or criminal prosecution), many drone pilots still haven’t gotten the hint.

In California, CALFIRE introduced a public awareness program in 2015 aimed at drone pilots that explains the danger. The “If You Fly, They Can’t” campaign was a result of continuing drone interference and public indifference.

Even with increased awareness generated by P.R. and news stories, the toy plane cowboys continue to fly into airspace over wildfires. Drone incursion incidents doubled between 2014 and 2015 and are well on the way to topping those figures this year.

Many states are enacting or considering laws that will allow firefighters to shoot down or disable drones that impede firefighting efforts.

In July of this year, Utah lawmakers, fed up with drone dummies halting air suppression activities over the Saddle Fire, approved laws that allow first responders to stop drones by jamming the UAS signals or shooting them down. California has also introduced legislation that would make it a crime for the operator of a drone to interfere with firefighting efforts, and it would allow firefighters to damage drones that impede firefighting efforts.

Maybe after a few drones get blasted out of the sky, it will get the attention of the toy pilots. Let’s hope so. Unfortunately, as comedian Ron White has said, “You can’t fix stupid.”

Update: Firefighting Funding

With the political scene shaping up like a NASCAR race with everyone waiting for the wreck, it’s no wonder there hasn’t been much movement in Congress to fix the wildfire funding issue.

But there is hope.

The Senate Agriculture Committee has recently approved legislation to take on the federal wildfire-spending dilemma.

The Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act (3085), similar to the Resilient Federal Forests Act (HR 2647), has been favorably reported out of the committee with a vote of 11 to 9.

The bill promotes large-scale forest management projects on National Forest System land; encourages cross-boundary management of federal, state, and private forested land; builds off successful and bipartisan policies in the 2014 Farm Bill that provide the U.S. Forest Service with the necessary tools to promote collaborative and active forest management activities in response to catastrophic and emergency events; and streamlines efficiencies for environmental review, analysis, and compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

Where the bill goes from here is anybody’s guess, but it is at least a step in the right direction.

What’s Burning NOW!

The Pioneer Fire, in Idaho’s Boise National Forest, started burning July 18 and has burned over 188,500 acres. It is the largest wildfire burning on Forest Service lands this year and will probably cost the taxpayers more than $100 million. There are over 500 firefighters on the ground still punching it out with the blaze. It is 65 percent contained but unseasonably hot weather is hampering suppression efforts. More than 1800 firefighters from local, state, federal, and tribal agencies and organizations have worked to contain the fire.

To date, it is still burning.

On July 22, at approximately 8:45 a.m., an illegal campfire ignited the Soberanes Fire along California’s Big Sur coast. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the Soberanes Fire has surpassed the $200 million mark in firefighting costs, making it the costliest fire to fight in U.S. History.

So far, more than 127,000 acres have been obliterated.

It, too, is still burning.

(Source: InciWeb, ODF, WA/DNR, NWCC)

That’s a wrap. Stay safe out there!

TWfirecolumn@gmail.com

TimberWest November/December 2013
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