Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Hobby drones can threaten firefighting aircraft

Through California and the west, where wildfires often burn at an alarming rate, the problem of unmanned hobby drones interfering with firefighting aircraft has become increasingly serious, officials say.

Twice this year in San Diego County and at least two other times elsewhere in the state, air tankers or helicopters have been grounded during fire fights after drones were spotted flying over the blazes — posing a grave risk to aircraft and personnel in the area.

Nationwide, the number of so-called “drone intrusions” this year was 17 as of Friday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, part of the US Bureau of Land Management.

Such incidents could have tragic consequences, authorities say.

Cal Fire Battlaion Chief Burke Kremensky, who heads the Ramona Air Attack base, said tankers and helicopters can help slow the advance of a fire, which is crucial when people are trying to evacuate.

“If there’s a drone flying and we have to cease operations, that’s putting a life at risk,” he said.

A collision between a drone and an aircraft could also be disastrous.

“If that drone strikes a propeller or strikes one of the rotors on a helicopter it could cause … that aircraft to crash,” Kremensky added. “The props are very lightweight and not designed to take an impact from a five pound object floating in the air.”

He said as tankers and helicopters fly low near a fire front preparing to dump water or fire retardant to slow the advance of flames, they can be traveling at about 100 miles an hour.

“It could actually break through the windscreen or windshield and come into the cockpit,” he said. “All four of our aircraft (based in Ramona) are piloted by one pilot. If that thing came in and hurt the pilot then it will crash into the mobile home park or the houses they are trying to protect.”

The latest incident of drone interference took place June 28 after two air tankers had made a retardant dump at the head of a fire near Fallbrook that was burning toward a mobile home park. Moments later two drones were spotted hovering about 200 feet above the area where the pink retardant had just been dropped, Kremensky said.

The tankers usually dump their loads from a height of 100 to 150 feet above the flames. “I don’t know how they missed (the drones),” he said.

Kremensky said he had to ground the tankers and copters for about an hour until the drones had left. Their operators were never identified. Luckily, the fire did not destroy any property before being extinguished days later after having burned nearly 800 acres.

Another incident was reported June 13 by Oceanside police near a brush fire that charred 50 acres on Camp Pendleton near the Marine Memorial Golf Course .

Police said a drone was seen in the air while a helicopter was making water drops on the blaze. The aircraft had to clear the area until the drone was gone, police Lt. Matt Cole said at the time. The drone operator was never seen.

Numerous state and federal laws restricting drones in fire areas are now in place. One California statute makes flying a drone over a fire and interfering with emergency personnel a misdemeanor. Another limits first responder’s liability for damaging a drone that is interfering with operations. In other words, a drone can be shot down by first responders although that has yet to happen.

Last week a 54-year-old Arizona man pleaded not guilty to two felony counts of endangering firefighting crews by flying a drone over an active fire in a designated “no fly” zone.

Several incidents allegedly linked to the man caused 14 aircraft to return to bases for more than an hour during the Goodwin fire, which began two weeks ago in the Prescott National Forest southwest of Flagstaff.

Complicating things further is that drones are almost impossible to see from the air. All reports of drone activity have come from observers on the ground who have seen them in them flying or who have spotted operators guiding a drone remotely.

Why are drones flying near fires? Often to take photographs and video to post on social media or sell to news organizations.

“They can cause a lot of destruction and possibly a lot of death … just to get a good picture,” Kremensky said.

Media agencies, many of which own and use drones for news gathering, know the laws well.

“Drone flight rules are in place for some very sound reasons,” said the San Diego Union-Tribune Photography and Video Editor John McCutchen. “Irresponsible use is only going to cause problems for firefighters and the media.”

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