Saturday, April 28, 2018

'If you fly, we can't': Department of Natural Resources pilots concerned with private drones over wildfires

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Pilots with the Department of Natural Resources are concerned with the number of drones they see flying near wildfires because of the dangers they pose to aircraft fighting the flames.

DNR says they’ve seen more and more hobbyists intentionally flying their drones over wildfires.

“It is super frustrating for folks out there doing their job, and it’s dangerous,” DNR’s Aviation Program Manager Michael Cuthbert said. “If the aircraft is struck by a drone it could be catastrophic. It could cause a crash and kill people.”

At the very least, the drone could cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to a DNR helicopter.

During a wildfire, DNR identifies a Fire Traffic Area – an air space set up for their aircraft to operate. It is typically 14 miles wide.

If a single drone flies into the Fire Traffic Area, their protocol requires all DNR aircrafts to land.

Last summer, a drone came within a few feet of colliding with a DNR helicopter.

DNR uses their helicopters to drop water and transport firefighters, which buys time for the crews fighting the flames on the ground. When aircrafts are grounded, their ability to effectively fight the fire takes a hit.

“They could be responsible for someone’s house burning down or for someone dying,” DNR Chief Pilot Dave Ritchie said.

During wildfires that require a larger air response, a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) is typically put in place to protect firefighting aircraft. With a TFR, no one other than the agencies involved in firefighting can fly within that zone.

Any drone pilot who violates a TFR could face civil and/or criminal penalties, according to the FAA. And even without a TFR in place, drone pilots who pose a hazard to firefighting aircrafts are violating Federal Aviation Regulations.

DNR hopes you’ll consider the fight they take on, before you take off.

If you see someone flying a drone near a wildfire, the FAA asks that you call their nearest district office and local law enforcement.

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