Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 1, 2015.

New and In the Way
Consumer drones emerge as a nuisance for aerial wildfire suppression efforts 

THE NATION WATCHED LIVE on television July 17 as wildfire jumped the 15 Freeway in the Cajon Pass near San Bernardino, California, setting 30 vehicles ablaze and snarling traffic for miles. Reluctantly, wildland firefighter pilots sat and watched, too, grounded for 26 minutes by the presence of five consumer drones flying dangerously close to the spreading fire.

As reported in NFPA Journal’s July/August cover story, “Rise of the Machines,” robots, drones, and unmanned systems have the potential to become invaluable tools for firefighters and other emergency responders. However, in the hands of the public, aerial drones are becoming an increasingly familiar nuisance. So far in 2015, consumer drones have interfered with fire suppression aircraft at least 13 times across five states, including at least 11 incidents since June, according to the U.S. Forest Service. There were only four such incidents all of last year, and the problem was virtually unheard of previous to that.

The easiest explanation for the growth of the problem is that, as prices of drones drop, more people are launching the devices into the skies than ever before. According to the Associated Press, the Consumer Electronics Association predicts U.S. consumers will buy 700,000 drones this year, up from 430,000 last year and 128,000 in 2013. The association estimates this year’s average sale price at $149, down from $160 last year and $349 in 2013, the AP reported.

Nearly all drones are equipped with video cameras, and hobbyists are drawn to wildfires in an effort to capture dramatic images to post on YouTube and social media sites like Facebook and Reddit. The problem is that these drones generally fly at the same altitude—usually a couple hundred feet off the ground—as planes and helicopters deployed to drop water and fire retardant on wildfires. If a drone were to accidentally get sucked into a plane engine or hit the tail rotor of a helicopter, officials say, it could be catastrophic not only for the aircraft crews but for fire crews and the public on the ground below.

Faced with those dire potential consequences, grounding aerial wildfire operations when drones are in the area is the only recourse incident commanders have, says Steve Gage, U.S. Forest Service representative. Suspending air efforts “could decrease the effectiveness of wildfire suppression operations, allowing wildfires to grow larger, and, in some cases, unduly threaten lives and property. But firefighter and public safety are our top priorities in wildfire management,” he said.

While no collision has occurred yet, a few incidents have been too close for comfort. Last September, a helicopter pilot with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection filed a report claiming that he narrowly avoided a collision 500 feet in the air when a four-rotor drone suddenly appeared 10 feet from his windshield, forcing him to veer away.

Public agencies, along with state, federal, and even local governments, are scrambling to address the problem. The U.S. Forest Service has launched a public awareness campaign, which includes a video with the message, “No drone flight or video is worth a life.” The Forest Service has also distributed posters saying, “If You Fly, We Can’t.” In San Bernardino, county officials unanimously approved $75,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrests of irresponsible drone users.

Meanwhile, laws have been introduced in the California Legislature that would increase fines and impose possible jail time for rogue drone operators, and allow first responders to destroy interfering drones. Bills have also been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that would subject drone operators interfering with first responders to fines and up to five years in prison.

JESSE ROMAN is staff writer for NFPA Journal.