As spring fire season enters its third month, the USDA Forest Service and N.C. Forest Service are reminding the public to keep drones away from wildfires. Flying drones or unmanned aircraft systems near wildfire activity is not only extremely dangerous, but illegal.
“Flying a drone near or around a wildfire compromises the safety of forest service pilots and ground crews and interferes with firefighting efforts,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “It’s important to remember that if you fly, we can’t.”
Firefighters use a variety of tactics when containing and suppressing wildfires from the air and on the ground. Unauthorized drone flights hinder all of them. Helicopters, planes and other aircraft that deliver hundreds of gallons of water and fire retardant to a burn site are already flying low, with minimal visibility and under smoky and windy conditions. When drones and firefighting aircraft share the same airspace, the risk of a midair collision increases.
To avoid the threat of midair collisions, all aerial wildfire operations are suspended when a drone is present, thus delaying wildfire suppression response and allowing the wildfire to grow larger. “The longer an uncontained wildfire burns, the greater the risk for loss of life to residents and firefighters, property and valuable resources and increased cost,” said State Forester David Lane. “There’s also the possibility of a drone malfunctioning while in flight, only to fall onto responders and members of the public below, potentially injuring them.”
According to the USDA Forest Service, 172 drone incursions took place between the years of 2015 and 2020. Since there is no centralized system to report these situations, the actual number is believed to be much higher.
The Federal Aviation Administration implements a temporary flight restriction around wildfires to protect aircraft engaged in firefighting operations. Individuals in violation of this law will be subject to civil penalties, including fines up to $25,000 and criminal prosecution.
It’s important to know the rules and remember if you fly, we can’t. To learn more about the unauthorized use of drones, go to www.fs.usda.gov/managing-land/fire/uas/if-you-fly.
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