Wildfire agencies ramp up efforts to stop hobby drones near fires

By Luke Geiver | June 09, 2016

UAS are a hot topic for the U.S. National Inter Agency Fire Center, for reasons both good and bad. Although several of the NIAFC’s partner entities—including the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management—are currently developing UAS strategies and protocols, the Boise, Idaho-based center is also working to educate the public about the improper use of sUAS over or near wildfires. 

NIAFC is pushing a message to the public, “If You Fly, We Can’t” to remind hobbyist and recreational pilots about the negative impact sUAV flights can have during firefighting missions. According to NIAFC, last year there were over 20 cases of drones interfering with firefighting operations, 10 of which forced firefighting airspace to shut down. 

Jennifer Jones, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, said sUAVs really came onto the radar of the Forest Service in 2014. “Last year the issue really exploded,” Jones said. “It happened in a number of states.” Temporary flight restrictions are usually put in place during wildfires. The TRF’s require manned or unmanned aircraft not involved in wildfire suppression operations to obtain permission from fire managers to enter specified airspace. 

Because of the rise in airspace downtime related directly to recreational sUAV flights near or above active wildfires, the NIAFC has ramped up its educational efforts this year after first starting them last year. “We realize that most people out there flying drones over wildfires aren’t aware of the risk they are creating,” Jones said. “We don’t think people are doing it intentionally.” 

The issue is that firefighter aircraft only fly a couple hundred feet about the ground. “They are trying to drop water right on a hot spot so they have to be pretty low,” Jones explained. 

Forest Service Plans UAS Expansion

 In addition to its work in educating the general public about the impact of sUAVs on firefighting efforts, the UFS is also looking to educate its internal team about the role of UAS in its collective efforts nationwide. Jones is part of a UAS task force that is working to better understand how UAS can impact the UFS. The group is working to understand the true cost of flying UAS, if the agency should own or contract out its UAS work and what the agency should do with aerial data along with how the agency should train a UAS staff. 

According to Jones, the agency will soon issue a contract for solicitation for a UAS aerial survey it hopes to perform this summer. “We are very interested in UAS technology,” she said. Different agencies, including the UFS and Department of Interior have been flying UAVs for fire monitoring work since 2013.