Officials support more education to prevent illegal drone flights over wildfires

Published: Jul. 29, 2020 at 10:46 AM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Drones are becoming increasingly useful in industries like real estate and agriculture. But they can also pose a danger in the sky.

The Federal Aviation Administration has received more than 100 reports since 2015 of private drones flying too close to planes and helicopters while they fight wildfires. That’s a federal crime. Officials predict a difficult wildfire season for states like Nevada in the coming months.

“It just stops everything,” said Rick Swan, Director of Health and Safety Operational Services at the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Unauthorized drone operations are hampering wildfire fights in the West, according to Swan.

When an unmanned aircraft is spotted, firefighting efforts in the air have to stop, wasting precious time to save lives and control the blaze.

“That could mean this fire going from 10 acres to 100 acres,” Swan said.

The Federal Aviation Administration can impose Temporary Flight Restrictions to keep drones away from firefighting operations.

“If you are a drone pilot flying over a fire, and you cause an accident…I think that there should be some extreme penalties that go along with it,” said Swan.

Pilots who violate the rules could face up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $20,000, if they are caught.

Experts say some pilots are knowingly breaking the law while others just don’t know the rules.

Federal agencies and pilot organizations released public awareness campaigns over the years like “If you fly, we can’t” and “Know Before you fly” hoping to stop the illegal drone flights.

Listen below to Stanton Florea, a Fire Communications Specialist at the Forest Service, discuss the importance of public awareness campaigns.

“We’re always for more education,” said Tyler Dobbs with pilot advocacy group Academy of Model Aeronautics.

Dobbs said they are constantly finding new ways to spread the message.

Nevada’s Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) sent a letter to federal agencies earlier this month calling for stronger safety programs. Last month, the issue hit home. Unauthorized drones stopped aerial operations at the Poeville Fire in Reno.

“There’s a lot of focus for getting the resources for firefighting, but there’s not enough resources for getting the educational piece,” said Masto.

The Senator also introduced a bill calling for studies of drone incursions and ways to prevent them. That legislation was referred to a Senate committee.

Anyone who has seen or knows about an unauthorized drone flight near a wildfire is urged to contact their local law enforcement.

Copyright 2020 Gray DC. All rights reserved.

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