Law enforcement, fire agencies ask drone hobbyists to avoid wildfires

Posted at 5:13 PM, Jul 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-10 19:13:57-04

Private drones are hindering aerial firefighting, as crews continue to battle raging wildfires across the west. In Boise, local fire agencies and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have a message for drone hobbyists -- "if you fly, we can't."

Firefighters battling wildfires have another problem to attack -- illegal drone intrusions. 

"We have had over 17 different instances this year of people flying drones near fires," said Jessica Gardetto, spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). "And a drone, even though they're small and lightweight, they can cause significant damage to a helicopter and could even cause a fatal accident."

And in those 17 instances, aerial firefighting operations had to temporarily shut down 14 times. In 2016, there were more than 40 reports of unauthorized drone usage near wildfires in 12 states, including Idaho. 

Because air tankers and helicopters fly at very low altitudes, every time an unauthorized drone is spotted flying over or near a wildfire, fire managers ground all aircraft. 

"When we see a drone flying in the area, we have to land all firefighting aircraft and that means that that fire could grow larger and threaten homes or other things in the meantime,"  Gardetto said. 

According to the FAA, unauthorized drone pilots who interfere with wildfire suppression efforts could face up to $20,000 in fines and even jail time. 

At least one person has been arrested this year in connection with flying an unauthorized drone over the Goodwin fire in Arizona.