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Illegal Drone Halts Firefighting Operations on Coldwater Fire

Matt Pace/Coconino National Forest

Coconino National Forest crews are working to manage a lightning-caused wildfire near Clints Well that started last week. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius reports, they were forced to halt aerial firefighting operations after spotting a drone flying in a restricted area. 

The crew of a fixed-wing aircraft over the Coldwater Fire reported the private drone Saturday. Managers immediately grounded a helicopter taking part in firefighting efforts until they determined it was safe to resume flying.

"It’s always illegal for a private drone to be operating within the wildfire area … Drone can cause significant damage to our aircraft. That can cause airplanes, helicopters to crash  … That puts the lives of our crew at risk," says U.S. Forest Service incident spokesperson Brandalyn Vonk.

Credit Coconino National Forest
Flames from the Coldwater Fire on June 8, 2019

The Forest Service is investigating and attempting to locate the drone operator.

Managers are, however, using a federally approved drone for burnout operations, by dropping small detonation devices in areas of the rugged terrain where hand ignitions are difficult. It’s also being used for reconnaissance missions.

The Coldwater Fire started in an area that fire managers previously slated for forest treatment. They’re allowing it burn to reduce fuel load among the dense ponderosa pines.

The fire is currently 6,150 acres and 15 percent contained.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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