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Science and Innovations

Illegal Drone Flights in Arizona Endanger Wildland Firefighters


Arizona leads the nation this year in illegal drone flights over wildfires.  These “drone incursions” force firefighters to ground aircraft bearing water and fire retardant. That delays critical firefighting and puts lives at risk. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.

Credit National Interagency Fire Center

Incident commander Mike Uebel had just arrived on scene at a wildfire near Williams. The blaze was still less than an acre but he knew right away he needed a helicopter.

“It’s lined up in a drainage with winds blowing right into town, and a whole community of houses that bordered the forest,” he remembers.

Uebel made the call to dispatch. A moment later, he heard a noise.  

“There was a lot of radio traffic at that time, I was ordering resources, setting up a staging area, so I didn’t quite think about it for thirty seconds,” he says. Then it clicked. It was a drone.

“As soon as I saw the drone the first thought in my mind was to cancel the helicopter,” he says. “We have to take care of our firefighters, we have to make sure everybody’s safe.”

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Mike Uebel and Bob Blasi of the Kaibab National Forest check out the scene of the Williams Fire.

A drone collision, like a bird strike, can be fatal for the helicopter’s pilot and for people on the ground. That’s why aircraft are grounded, sometimes for hours, until the skies are clear. Justin Jager, interagency aviation officer for the Kaibab and Coconino national forests, explains, “When we have an outside person flying a drone we have no idea what they’re doing with it, where they intend to go with it.”

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Cliff Beck shows off a popular drone at Flagstaff Hobbies.

Drone incursions are increasing. They’ve interrupted wildfires seven times in Arizona just this year … despite the fact you can end up with jail time and thousands of dollars in fines.

Jager says, “Some people buy a drone off of whatever website, they get it, they’re excited, want to go fly it around. They might not know the rules and regulations.”

By the end of this year, there will be an estimated two million hobby drones in the nation’s airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration set up a registration system in 2015. But a hobbyist filed a lawsuit against it and won. There’s no easy way to identify drone owners and no technological solution to keep them out of restricted areas.

Jennifer Jones of the U.S. Forest Service says the best bet is education. “We’re trying very hard to get the word out to members of the public about: there’s a lot of great places to fly their drones on public lands, but over or near wildfires isn’t one of them.”

But it’s hard to get the message out when most people buy drones online. Cliff Beck owns Flagstaff Hobbies, which sells model trains, cars and aircraft. “It’s that human interaction, that conversation, that can spark that sort of critical thinking that is lost when somebody buys it online, plain and simple,” he says.

Credit Mike Uebel
A helicopter delivers water to the Williams Fire, after being delayed by a drone.

Beck says many of his customers aren’t familiar with the rules and risks of flying. The regulations are confusing. And drones are so easy to fly they seem like harmless toys. “I think what people often don’t realize or forget very easily, is how easy it is to actually bring down an aircraft.  …. and all for a few pictures of a fire, or some video of fire going on?”

Crews fighting this summer’s wildfire near Williams were able to contain it, despite the drone grounding air support for an hour. Bob Blasi of the Kaibab National Forest says they got lucky.

“Had it been the windy day, a day or two before, it’s very likely that fire would have been right down there on top of those houses in that hour,” he says.   

Blasi worries they won’t be so fortunate the next time a drone shows up.

“One home lost, one life lost—you can imagine if you were the one flying the drone and that happened, could you live with yourself after that? It’s simply not worth it,” he says.

So far this year, drones have interrupted wildfire operations at least 24 times in ten states.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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