Some might think pilots cruise the open skies far removed from the potential dangers that motorists face in traffic. But that is not entirely true.
Pilots are also on the lookout for obstacles, including birds, towers, telephone wires and other aircraft. And in a wildfire area, the number of potential obstacles are far greater than when flying at 35,000 feet in elevation.
Firefighting pilots operate a few hundred feet off the ground or less. And they do it in smoky conditions, where visibility is limited, often with multiple other aircraft using the same air space.
As if conditions weren’t dangerous enough, firefighting pilots have new a conflict: drones.
Amateur photographer Dan Bender said the danger drones present to wildfire aircraft became especially apparent Friday and Saturday while staring down his zoom lens during the 416 Fire.
Many helicopters fly at less than 100 feet above ground, and they are almost at ground level when refueling buckets or on-board water tanks, he said. At the same time, the pilots are busy.
“Those pilots are locked in to where they’re going, what the wind is doing, and, if it’s a bucket drop, what that might get snagged on,” Bender said. “One hundred percent of their attention is focused on that. To see an object that is maybe 15 inches in size across buzzing along at their same altitude, it’s hard to pick those out. ... They don’t need unauthorized aircraft in the form of drones risking their lives.”
When drones are spotted in wildfire areas, aircraft are called off the fire, which puts firefighters’ lives in danger, Bender said. It leaves ground crews without air support to stop a fire’s spread or create an exit route in the event of an emergency, he said.
It can also result in thousands of dollars in wasted resources.
“The FAA’s top priority is safety. If you endanger manned aircraft or people on the ground with an unmanned aircraft, you could be liable for a fine ranging from $1,000 to a maximum of $25,000,” according to the Federal Aviation Administration. “Know the rules before you fly. If you don’t, serious penalties could be coming your way for jeopardizing these important missions.”
During the 2017 Lightner Creek Fire, air tankers had to dump retardant short of their targets and leave the area until drones could be grounded.
“It’s not only a lack of common sense, it’s down-right criminal,” Bender said.
Firefighters received one report of a drone flying Friday near the south end of the 416 Fire. It was unknown if the pilot was contacted by law enforcement.
The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to an email Sunday requesting comment, including information about how many drone incidents have occurred or whether any pilots have been ticketed for flying drones in the 416 Fire area.
Tom McNamara, emergency management coordinator with La Plata County Search and Rescue, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment about drone flying in wildfire areas.