Drones and wildfires are a dangerous mix

The sprawling forests of the western United States are full of beautiful destinations for camping, hiking and immersing yourself in nature. It’s an endless array of breathtaking vistas, quaint towns and secluded landscapes. These places are perfect for filming. Some tools of our trade — such as camera-equipped drones — are capable of capturing these breathtaking scenes from angles that were impossible a few decades ago. 

Unfortunately, these areas are often ravaged by wildfires. With mountain communities decimated and dozens of lives lost in recent years, video coverage is widespread. There are stories of terror, grief, survival, heroism, miracles and resilience. The stories are compelling. As a videographer, it can be challenging to capture wildfire stories without disrespecting the personal tragedies of those directly affected. 

During emergencies like this, information and stories from beyond the roadblocks are highly valued. Drones are a perfect tool to get it. Drones, also referred to as UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems), are remote-controlled aircraft that do not require pilots. If you own a drone, it can be tempting to send it into wildfire zones or other emergencies. You may intend to post the footage online hoping to create a viral video. If you or someone you know is evacuated, you might want to see what’s happening in that neighborhood. Whatever your reason, we urge you to never fly drones in these situations. There are several important reasons.

Drones are small… so what’s the big deal?

Large UAVs, like Northrup Grumman’s RQ-4/MQ-4C measuring about 48 feet long, are not available to consumers. These are military-grade and often designed to collect data or carry out stealth missions. Civilian drones are significantly smaller. They frequently have cameras attached to capture aerial photos and videos. These drones tend to be about 10 to 15 inches long. The Axis Vidius, a 1.5-inch quadcopter, is one of the smallest. Are drones the size of hummingbirds capable of interfering with the massive helicopters and tankers used to fight wildfires? The answer is absolutely yes. 

Firefighting aircraft fly at low altitudes, just above the treetops and deep into the canyons. This zone, known as the Fire Traffic Area (FTA), is also where drones are usually flown. When pilots fly into the area of a new fire, the pressure to find it and contain it quickly is intense. If a fire is already raging out of control, pilots fly in extreme heat, gusty winds and low visibility. Either way, the tension is high and the danger is very real.

Fire traffic area graphic
Image courtesy: AOPA Blog

According to Mike Yearwood, Aviation Management Specialist with the US Forest Service, when a drone is sighted, the firefighting aircraft are immediately instructed back to base until further notice. Generally, this means that the Aerial Supervisor must physically watch the drone until it lands. If visual contact is lost, aircraft remain grounded until typical hobby drone battery life has been exhausted. Even with these highly skilled pilots, the distraction of a drone can be perilous. “Every time an unauthorized drone is sighted in the FTA, it absolutely impacts the firefighters by stripping them of aerial support until the intrusion is rectified,” he cautions.

Real world scenarios

“Having spent most of my career in Helitack,” Yearwood explains, “I’ve experienced quite a few unauthorized drone encounters while responding to fires. Flying at 80-100 knots, spotting a drone can be quite alarming.” This is especially true in dangerous conditions. In addition to the task at hand, pilots must be aware of aerial hazards such as wires, birds and other responding aircraft. The helicopter responds with specially trained firefighters and lands at the incident, deploying the crew and water bucket. “It’s certainly disappointing to be diverted from a new fire while it is still small knowing that you, your firefighters and helicopter may make the critical difference between catching the fire early or watching it grow into a conflagration.”

That’s exactly what happened in the early hours of the Dixie Fire. It began in July 2021 in the steep terrain of a Northern California forest. A swift air attack was launched on a spot fire that was likely ignited by a PG&E equipment malfunction. Frustratingly, the flight crews were grounded for approximately 45 minutes due to a drone in the FTA. There’s no way to know whether they may have been able to control the flames if they had that time. We do know, though, the results of the Dixie Fire were devastating. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed in a blaze that has consumed nearly a million acres of forest and wildlife.

Dixie Fire
Dixie Fire. Image courtesy ABC News

In the US, there were 41 reported incidents of drones flying in restricted FTA in 2016. Although the numbers have dropped consistently since then, there were still 20 reports in 2019. These reports were across multiple states. Each incursion caused a firefight delay and endangered the lives of the crews on the ground. Zero is the only acceptable number here. 

Drones, emergencies and the law

Laws governing the commercial or recreational use of drones vary by country. Even within a country, there may be different laws in each state, province or city. Generally, regulations prohibit flying in emergency zones such as the FTA and interfering with emergency response teams. Most countries have requirements for registering your aircraft if it meets a certain size. You’ll need to take a class (or at least pass a test like this) and follow a set of guidelines such as the Rules for Recreational Flyers in the United States. 

Apart from FTA safety, there are many other laws about how, when and where you can fly a drone. Government agencies take these laws very seriously. Offenders will be prosecuted. There may be civil and criminal penalties, including arrest and hefty fines. “This subject has been a common topic in the drone community for a few years now, and claiming ignorance is not a defense,” Yearwood explained.

Putting UAVs to good use

There are times when drones can actually be helpful in disasters, though. In November 2018, a fire ignited in the forest near the small California community of Conow just before dawn. It raged fierce and fast, consuming everything in its path. Evacuating the nearby towns of Paradise and Magalia so early in the morning was a living nightmare. More than 30,000 people fled with only a few minutes to pack some belongings. Most of them didn’t have homes to return to. In the following days, residents needed to begin their insurance claims to help pay for long-term lodging and survival.

Fallen trees and downed power lines blocked streets and the fire was still burning. It wasn’t safe for damage surveyors. Drone Deploy was called in to assist. Emergency response teams launched over 500 drone flights. Then, the Drone Deploy team helped compile over 500GB of data to create maps. The highly accurate, geo-referenced aerial maps overlaid with street names were quickly made available online. It was the largest UAV task force in history and it helped residents begin their insurance claims to begin the path to recovery.

It may be tempting to use your drone to capture rare footage of a major emergency as it unfolds. However, even if your motivation for doing so is benign, the consequences can be terrible. It puts the lives of emergency responders at risk beyond the risks they’re already taking. It causes response delays as fires rage on. As a final important note from the fire crews everywhere, Yearwood reminds us, “If you fly, we can’t. Be responsible. Be professional. Stay out of the FTA.”

Image courtesy: sUSA News

Tiffany Harness
Tiffany Harness
Tiffany is a professional writer and B2B relations specialist. She has a background in procurement, sales, marketing and management.

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