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Drones and Forest Fires – Leave It to the Pros

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by Patrick J. Paul

Wildfire season is in full swing with at least 19 active fires burning across Arizona according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM).  There are multiple other prescribed or controlled fires also presently burning across the state.

While the moisture from the monsoon season, which officially began on June 15, typically reduces fire activity, the National Weather Service reports that Arizona won’t enjoy its typical thunderstorms until late July.  High wildfire activity is expected to continue until then.

Recently a private drone was spotted flying near the Coldwater Fire, causing the grounding of aviation used to manage the fire.  The drone was spotted in the Temporary Flight Restriction area by the air attack coordinator, according to a press release from Coconino National Forest.  In response, the assigned firefighting helicopter was grounded immediately.

DFFM officials have expressed concern over drone use near forest fires, noting that it is illegal to operate a private drone near a wildfire as it is considered interfering with the efforts of firefighters to extinguish a fire – an act prohibited by Department of Interior regulations at 43 CFR § 9212.1(f).  All fires are considered “no drone zones.”

According to the DFFM, aircraft have been grounded in Arizona on multiple fires, since 2017, including the Pinal Fire near Globe, the Boundary Fire near Payson, and the Goodwin Fire near Prescott due to unauthorized drones in the airspace.  In response, the DFFM has engaged in a public awareness campaign urging drone owners that no photo or video is worth the risk to human and forest safety and noting that if drones are flown, firefighting aviation equipment is grounded, and firefighters cannot properly perform their duties.  Furthermore, drones near wildfires pose a danger and safety hazard to the aircraft assigned to the fires, leading them to be grounded and thus delaying fire fighting efforts.

In fact, DFFM tweeted the following:  “This is a huge safety issue, folks,”  “When a drone is spotted, aviation being used to help suppress a fire has to be grounded.”  Governor Doug Ducey added his own message: “Flying drones over or near wildfires is irresponsible, dangerous and illegal.  DON’T DO IT.”

On a positive note regarding drones and forest fires, Arizona firefighters are using authorized drones to drop small detonation devices for ignitions during burnout operations in places difficult to access and ignite in person.  Additionally, authorized drones are flying reconnaissance missions and sharing real time data on fire movement and management efforts.

The bottom line for drone owners interested in a closer view is to ground the drones and let the firefighters do their jobs.