Firefighters add drone incursions to threats faced in a wildfire

A firefighter works the Goodwin Fire in Yavapai County. Firefighting operations were interrupted twice in six days by drones flying over the fire, which officials say puts firefighters on the ground in danger. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

A Chinook helicopter flies over a wildfire. Officials say that when drones fly into restricted airspace over a wildfire they danger of collision forces firefighting aircraft like to be temporarily grounded. (Photo by Christina Montiel/via U.S. Forest Service)

WASHINGTON – It used to be that firefighters’ biggest worries in a wildfire might be unpredictable winds, rocky terrain and scorching heat.

That was before the advent of affordable, readily available aerial drones.

Firefighters battling the Goodwin Fire in central Arizona had to suspend operations twice in one week after drones flew into airspace over the blaze, incursions that one official called “extremely unusual” but which he fears is the beginning of a “very disturbing trend.”

Drone incursions into airspace that is restricted to helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes, which drop water and fire-retardant chemicals, forces them to be grounded to avoid a drone collision. When that happens, firefighters on the ground are left unprotected and forced to back off.

“We needed our firefighters to be supported with bucket drops and retardant drops,” said Kale Casey, a spokesman for the Type 3 Incident Management Team that is overseeing efforts on the Goodwin blaze. “And all that stops instantly as soon as one person’s drone enters our airspace.”

Firefighters, both on the ground and in the air, risk their lives to do their jobs, he said.

“When we talk about risk, we’re talking about the ultimate risk,” Casey said. “This is a very, very dangerous occupation that we have, and we do everything we can to mitigate the risk.”

The trend isn’t limited to Arizona.

On June 28, two firefighting aircraft in Colorado were grounded after drone sightings close to the Lightner Creek Fire near Durango, according to the Durango Herald. And the New York Times reported that drone sightings in 2015 caused interruptions in at least five California wildfire operations.

The Goodwin fire began June 24 and was reported 95 percent contained as of Friday, after burning more than 28,000 acres.

The Goodwin drone incidents began June 30, when an air-attack pilot supervisor reported a drone “at his altitude” that began to circle the plane, according to a statement from by the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office. The drone’s presence meant all 14 firefighting aircraft had to be grounded immediately, and the hotshot firefighters on the ground had to pull out.

“They had to back away because they had no assistance from above, and it just makes things very complicated and dangerous,” said Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dwight D’Evelyn.

That same day, sheriff’s deputies arrested Gene Alan Carpenter, 54, in connection with the drone incident. He was charged this week with two counts of felony endangerment and one count of unlawful operation of an unmanned aircraft.

Any hopes that the arrest would deter other drone operators evaporated on July 4, when another drone sighting forced a helicopter to land. No suspect had been identified in that incident as of Friday.

The danger from drones is very real, D’Evelyn said.

“I understand from the folks that handle these firefighting missions that rotor aircraft are really susceptible to being downed by a drone if it gets caught up in the rotor wash and things like that, which can happen very easily,” he said.

Drones are a relatively new threat, brought on by falling prices and increased supply of private drones on the market. And Casey said it only adds to the danger of the job.

“Before drones were a part of the theater of operation, we didn’t have to worry like we do now,” he said. “At any given moment, a civilian could completely disrupt what we have set in place to achieve our goals.”

Casey said there is no surefire way to prevent drones from flying in places they shouldn’t.

“If you think about it, really, anybody anywhere can fly a drone into our airspace,” he said. “We can’t make that not happen. We can’t put up a barrier around a 10-square-mile area, or whatever it is we’ve designated.”

The Federal Aviation Administration typically sets up temporary flight restrictions around wildfires, making the airspace off-limits to all but firefighting aircraft. Federal law also prohibits resisting or interfering with firefighters’ attempts to battle a blaze on public lands.

Carpenter currently faces state charges, but D’Evelyn said the Yavapai County Attorney’s office is consulting with federal officials on whether federal charges can be brought.

But there’s not much else regulators can do.

Commercial drone pilots have to register with the FAA, but a requirement that recreational operators register their drones was thrown out by a federal court in May. The FAA is exploring technology that allow remote identification of drones, and their registered owners, but that technology has yet to be developed.

In the meantime, the FAA said anyone who sees someone flying a drone near a wildfire should immediately report it to local police and the nearest FAA Flight Standards District Office. The agency would not comment on questions related to drone registration and enforcement, but said in a statement that it supports the U.S. Forest Service’s slogan on drone operation: “If you fly, we can’t.”

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit that promotes the use of drones worldwide, has been supportive of increased registration and regulation in the past. A spokeswoman declined to comment specifically on the Arizona incidents, but said in a statement that, “Stricter enforcement will not only punish irresponsible operators, it will also serve as a deterrent” to those who would misuse drones.

Casey said the only way to prevent these incidents is to educate the public on the harm they can cause. Drone operators might be tempted to check in on their homes or get photos or videos of firefighting operations, but they have to think of the consequences, he said.

“We’re the ones who are completely vulnerable to that desire, and we need people to realize that they need to not be selfish – they need to not put our pilots at risk,” Casey said.