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In The Heat Of The Moment, Drones Are Getting In The Way Of Firefighters

A helicopter flies near the Lake Fire in California's San Bernardino National Forest on June 19. Firefighters mobilized to combat the wildfire from the air, but they had to be grounded to avoid drones in the area.
David McNew
A helicopter flies near the Lake Fire in California's San Bernardino National Forest on June 19. Firefighters mobilized to combat the wildfire from the air, but they had to be grounded to avoid drones in the area.

Soon after the Lake Fire started last month, it threatened hundreds of homes. Fire officials in Southern California's San Bernardino National Forest, where the wildfire raged, responded quickly by sending helicopters and more than a thousand firefighters to combat the blaze.

Mike Eaton was one of the pilots called upon to help fight the fire. On the evening of June 24, he recalls, they noticed a drone. The aerial attack was immediately called off, out of fear of a midair collision; the three air tankers attacking the Lake Fire were parked the rest of the day. And the fire grew as a result.

What Eaton and his fellow firefighters confronted wasn't uncommon. At least five times this summer — and once this week — aerial firefighting operations in the West have had to be shut down because officials deemed nearby drones a threat to the planes and helicopters that drop water and retardant on fires.

And pilots like Eaton deem it no idle threat. Flying over wildfires is considered the most dangerous type of flight there is, outside of aerial combat. Robert West, who's been doing this for 44 years, says that trying to spot tiny unmanned aircraft makes the job even more difficult.

"We usually have visibility problems anyway, with the smoke and keeping track of our lead planes and helicopters on the fire, let alone look out for a drone," West says. "And by the time we probably saw something, if it was very small, we couldn't do anything about it. It'd just be there."

In a conversation with NPR's Melissa Block, The New York Times' Jenny Medina elaborated on the danger: "Firefighters say that, no matter how tiny these things might be, they can get sucked quite easily into the propeller of a helicopter or an engine of an airplane and cause the aircraft to go down quite quickly."

Those fears have very real consequences. In 2014, there were four known instances of drones interfering with aerial firefighting operations. That's when people like Aitor Bidaburu began to worry.

"If we are putting the firefighters in a place where they can't fully engage the fire because they don't have the tools that they need, and the fires are gonna get worse and threaten communities, I think that's a big issue," he says.

Bidaburu is a wildland fire program manager with the U.S. Fire Administration in Boise, Idaho. He, like many in his line of work, thinks most of the problems are caused by hobbyists who just don't understand the rules.

So, authorities are trying to combat the problem with public education campaigns. The Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, for example, posted a YouTube video in June, advising viewers that "no drone flight, or picture or video, is worth a life."

The Federal Aviation Administration says that it, too, prefers to focus on outreach right now, though a spokesman points out that the maximum fine for flying drones too close to fires is $25,000. And now, two California lawmakers have introduced a bill that would allow firefighters to destroy nearby unmanned aircraft.

The bill has skeptics, however.

"Nobody knows what it would look like if you would take a drone out of the sky right away," Medina says, "the mechanics of how it would play out and how it would work."

And, she says, there are others who defend the use of drones for getting people a view of these wildfires that they might not have otherwise.

"One person I spoke with, who's actually a professor of drone journalism, said: Look, there is an argument to be made that there's news value and public interest value in this kind of footage," Medina says.

Mike Eaton, one of the pilots grounded by a drone last month near Los Angeles, says pausing the aerial fight on the Lake Fire didn't turn out to be a big deal. But, if it had happened elsewhere, it could've been catastrophic.

"If this had been down in the [San Bernardino] Valley," he says, "it would have made a huge difference on our ability to protect the people's homes, infrastructure or certainly the possibility of the loss of life."

The issue is one the drone industry is watching. Some companies provide FAA literature on safe flying in drone packaging. Others, though, say that using cloud-based technology to teach unmanned aircraft where they should and shouldn't fly is a better solution.

Copyright 2015 Boise State Public Radio News

Scott comes to BSPR from WFAE in Charlotte, N.C., where he served as local host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” for the past eight years. He began his new position as Morning Edition Host/Senior Editor for BSPR in 2012.