Firefighting operations were disrupted at least four times in four days by drones flying over the Lightner Creek Fire, according to the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.
Local law enforcement made contact with three suspects, and a fourth case remained under investigation Monday, said sheriff’s spokesman Dan Bender.
The cases have been referred to the Bureau of Land Management for possible prosecution, Bender said.
It is against federal law to resist or interfere with firefighters’ efforts to extinguish fires. The Federal Aviation Administration also has rules that pertain to unmanned aircraft systems on national forest system lands, including flying in no-fly zones. The FAA had enacted a no-fly zone around the Lightner Creek Fire.
The names of the suspects and possible charges were unavailable Monday; a spokeswoman for the BLM did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Drones have disrupted fire-suppression efforts at several major wildfires this year, including in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, where a 54-year-old Prescott Valley man was arrested Saturday on suspicion of 14 counts of felony endangerment and one count of unlawful operation of an unmanned aircraft.
Drones are becoming more common among hobbyists and commercial operators. Some hobbyists may view their drone as a toy and forget common sense when flying around wildfires, over crowds or past ridge lines where they lose visual site of the craft, Bender said. But like driving a car, pilots must follow rules when operating the machines, he said.
“People that are flying drones need to realize there are safety considerations, and as a drone operator, they have a common-sense responsibility to make sure it’s operated in a safe way,” Bender said.
Drones are a major safety concern for helicopter pilots making bucket drops and air tankers that fly a few hundred feet off the ground when making slurry drops, he said.
It is not always possible to identify drone pilots or where they’re located. Air operations were suspended around sunset Wednesday, the day the Lightner Creek Fire started. As a result, two air tankers had to jettison about 1,600 gallons of retardant, which cost between $8,000 to $10,000. Police combed subdivisions in west Durango before making contact with two people.
More sophisticated drones have GPS systems that store time and location, which can help investigators determine if it was the one that disrupted firefighting operations, said Cmdr. Rita Warfield with Durango Police Department.
Last year, there were 41 air-space conflicts involving drones on wildfires across the country, said Reid Armstrong, regional fire communications specialist for the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service.
“That great shot – that great photo or video – it’s not worth it when lives are at stake during a wildfire,” Armstrong said.
It is pilots’ responsibility to register their drones and learn the rules for operating drones, she said, and to also be aware of flying restrictions. Free smartphone apps are available to help unmanned aircraft operators know if restrictions are in place.
No-fly zones typically encompass areas far wider than burn area because aircraft need to shuttle water from ponds, approach from far away for slurry drops or position to drop to hotshot crews.
“In the right time and the right place, they can be fun, but people need to understand they need to follow the same considerations as manned aircraft in terms of getting approved by the FAA,” Armstrong said.
It can be difficult locating drone pilots and stopping them while they’re in the act. Law enforcement can’t shoot down drones: They have to consider public safety, including projectiles or pieces of debris that may come down.
“That’s not something that we would do because that would just create other problems and might endanger other people’s lives,” Warfield said.
Law enforcement has had the greatest success locating suspects after they post video and photos to YouTube or other social media sites, Bender said.
“People who illegally fly drones over or near wildland fires do threaten the safety of firefighters and the effectiveness of wildfire operations,” Bender said.
“When drones are in the air, planes have to leave the area for their own safety. That means planes that are dropping fire retardant and water on the fire are now not doing that. That then means the firefighters on the ground don’t have that needed air support.”