Friday, July 28, 2017

If You Fly, We Can’t: Drone Grounds Firefighting Aircraft in Southwest Oregon

On Sunday, a grass fire off Interstate 5 and milepost 55 in Grants Pass was quickly knocked down at a half-acre; however, every firefighter on the ground and in the air faced an additional risk when a hobby drone was spotted in the sky.
            The powerline-related fire was called in at roughly 4:10 p.m. Sunday, July 23rd. Within minutes, five engines, one water tender and one hand crew from the Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest Oregon District, one engine and one water tender from Rural Metro Fire Josephine County and two engines from Grants Pass Fire arrived on scene and began containing the fire. An ODF Southwest Oregon District, Type 2 helicopter, was dispatched shortly after to assist in the initial attack. Upon arrival, the helicopter was requested to perform a reconnaissance mission along the I-5 corridor in order to guarantee that the fire did not spot or spread to areas that firefighters on the ground could not see. With the water bucket deployed and already in tow, the helicopter headed south along I-5 searching for additional fire starts. The pilot had every intention of returning to the fire after the scouting mission; however, an ODF engine crewman spotted a drone heading toward the active fire scene just moments after the helicopter changed direction. The pilot was immediately contacted, left the area to create distance between himself and the drone, then landed safely at our Grants Pass headquarters. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will be investigating the incident moving forward. ODF Southwest Oregon District would like to encourage anyone who sees a drone over an active fire incident to call 9-1-1.
            “It jeopardizes the safety of our pilots, firefighters and the public. We are asking that people help spread this message so a drone interfering with firefighting operations does not happen again,” said ODF Southwest District Forester, Dave Larson.
As unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technology has become increasingly popular, so have run-ins between hobby drones and wildland firefighting agencies, like the Oregon Department of Forestry, that consider it a hindrance. This is the first time aerial operations have been grounded by a drone in the Southwest Oregon District. Thankfully, the pilot, firefighters and the public below were not harmed by the drone intrusion. Many people often forget that a single hobby drone is enough to take down firefighting aircraft.
 When drones interfere with firefighting efforts, a wildfire has the potential to grow larger and cause more damage. Every second counts. Not to mention, every time an aircraft is grounded due to drone interference, thousands of dollars are wasted on take-off and landing alone. It is important to note that just because a helicopter is not visible in the sky, or flames are no longer noticeable on the ground, does not mean that fire scene is no longer ‘active.’ Aircraft are often orbiting a wildfire long after flames are knocked down. In addition, resources on the ground and in the air often revisit fire scenes in order to ensure there is no heat radiating from the ground that could potentially spark a new fire. As long as there are boots on the ground, the fire scene remains active.
Recreational drone use on a wildfire is prohibited by the FAA due to amount of risk in regards to human life. According to the FAA, “drone operators who interfere with wildfire suppression efforts are subject to civil penalties of up to $27,500 and possible criminal prosecution.” For further information about drone regulations, visit: www.knowbeforeyoufly.org.
            Remember, if you fly, we can’t.
Please join ODF Southwest Oregon District in sharing our message on Facebook and YouTube. Together, we can keep everyone in the air and on the ground safe allowing us to attack and suppress wildfires faster than if we worked alone.
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