“If you fly, we can’t.” That’s the slogan used by the U.S. Forest Service in a bid to deter owners of hobby drones from flying them close to wildfires.
But at least a few people in Colorado have been unable to resist powering up their quadcopters and flying them over burning land in the past few days, apparently to capture video footage of the smoke-filled landscape.
A number of wildfires are currently scorching parts of the state, with the authorities pointing out how the unauthorized drones are hampering efforts to contain the fires using manned aircraft.
“[It’s] not a distraction anybody needs,” Steve Hall of the Colorado Bureau of Land Management told the Denver Channel. “[We] had to shut down operations because somebody had flown a drone into restricted airspace.”
Firefighting aircraft were unable to take off for at least an hour last week while officials tried to track down those responsible for the drone flights. No arrests have so far been reported.
Spelling out the danger, Hall said: “If you have aviation equipment moving quickly and they hit a drone, that’s going to cause significant damage and really be a safety issue for that pilot.”
He added that grounding aircraft could mean “ten fewer tanker drops [and] bucket drops,” explaining that while that may not sound like much, “that can make a huge difference in a wildfire.”
Drones caused multiple problems for firefighters tackling the damaging wildfires in California last year. A range of manned aircraft are used to fight such fires, with helicopters and air tankers of various sizes dropping water and fire retardant to combat blazes.
There’s also the SuperTanker. Dubbed “the world’s biggest fire extinguisher,” the SuperTanker is a modified Boeing 747 aircraft capable of dropping up to 20,000 gallons of fire retardant in one go. If drones are sighted during an operation, none of these aircraft can fly until the airspace is deemed safe.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warns drone operators that they could be hit with “significant” fines if they disrupt emergency response efforts with their flying machines.
“Flying a drone without authorization in or near the disaster area may violate federal, state, or local laws and ordinances, even if a Temporary Flight Restriction is not in place,” the FAA says on its website, adding, “Allow first responders to save lives and property without interference.