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Drones Are Grounding Wildfire Fighting Aircraft in California

Airborne fire-fighting is sketchy enough.

by Michael Byrne
Jul 19 2015, 11:27pm

Image: US Army

Mid to late July in southern California is the very heart of wildfire season. And with many years of drought ensuring the state's forests are parched and as ready to erupt as physically possible, 2015 is already a terrible season. At the moment, the multiagency Incident Information System is registering 17 active wildfires in the state with over a 100,000 acres burnt or burning.

Wildland firefighting is already a hot, exhausting, and a dangerous job, but, according to firefighters, there's a new factor adding to the challenge: drones.

As the New York Times reports, last month saw incidents involving five different fires in which fire crews had to pull back aircraft tasked with dumping water and chemicals onto fast-moving flames, including the one involved in this weekend's viral image of a fire suddenly jumping a Los Angeles-area freeway. In that case, there were five drones at one point hovering over the fire.

It's bad enough that the forest service is making public service announcements, with the tagline: "If you fly, we can't."

Wildland fire-fighting airplanes are uniquely vulnerable to interference given the extreme weight shift following a water dump.

"If this gets into our engine or hits our wings, there's no doubt we are going down," Mike Eaton, a forest aviation officer with the San Bernardino and Cleveland National Forests, told the Times. "[The drone pilots] are like storm chasers, maybe trying to get that next bit of data, but instead putting a lot of people at risk. Every minute we lose battling a wildfire can be life and death."