Recreational drones or Unmanned Aircraft Systems sometimes called UAS have become increasingly popular in the past few years. While this is an interesting hobby and can allow you to get beautiful aerial photography, some activities pose a significant hazard.
The use of these drones to capture video footage of wildfires is one of those hazardous activities.
The US Forest Service is stepping up efforts to remind drone users that unauthorized flights near a wildfire have the very real potential to cause serious injury or even death to firefighters and pilots who are in the air, as well as firefighters and public citizens on the ground. This is because aerial firefighting aircraft, such as airtankers and helicopters, fly at very low altitudes, the same as drones flown by the general public, creating an environment for mid-air collisions.
Adding to this disastrous mix of unauthorized drone flights and fire is the fact that firefighting aircraft typical fly in smoky, windy and turbulent conditions. Safety depends on knowing what other aircraft are operating in the airspace and where they are at all times. Consequently, their safety is compromised by the presence of a drone.
Suspending air operations because of drone use, which has happened several times already on major fires, could decrease the effectiveness of wildfire suppression operations. This year alone there have been at least 13 instances of unauthorized flights of drones over or near wildfires in at least seven states including California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Alaska, Minnesota, and Montana.
The effects of lost aircraft airtime could be compounded by potential flames moving into untreated terrain. This type of delay can allow wildfires to grow larger with the potential to threaten lives and property. Suspended air operations can also delay transportation of firefighters to different locations and add to costs of fighting the fire.
Flying drones without authorization over wildfires may be violating federal, state, or local laws, regulations, and ordinances, whether a Temporary Flight Restriction is in place or not.
All unauthorized drone flights over wildfires on National Forest System lands will be reported to the Federal Aviation Administration and law enforcement agencies. Individuals who have been determined to have endangered manned aircraft or people on the ground with a drone or interfered with wildfire suppression may be subject to civil penalties, including fines of up to $25,000, and potentially criminal prosecution.