REDDING, Calif. - Fighting wildfires is challenging in itself and drones should be the last thing firefighters need to focus on, but during fire season crews are constantly scanning the skies. When drones are in the air interfering with aerial firefighting there's a risk of collision and all aircrafts have to be grounded.
According to U.S. Forest Service Forest Aviation Officer John Casey helicopters, air tankers and air attack have to be grounded because a collision with a drone could be deadly.
"There could be a helicopter that you could have a rotar strike with that drone. Or some of our nex-gen air tankers having that sucked in through the jet engine or a prop. It's real similar to what it would be like for a bird strike," said Casey.
Casey mentioned there’s been an increase in recreational drone use.
Drones are typically flown within 200 feet from the ground, the same airspace as aerial firefighting missions. The U.S Forest Service saying, “If You Fly, We Can’t.” Which means helicopters, air tankers, and air attack must be grounded when there’s a drone in the area of a wildfire.
When combating fires, it’s a fight against time and every minute aerial units can't be used can change the course of a fire.
Before flight crews go up in the air they notify the Federal Aviation Administration and request a TFR which is a Temporary Flight Restriction.
"Anytime there's an aircraft that fly within those temporary flight restrictions that's an incursion and it is against the law to do that," added Casey.
Last July, CAL FIRE law enforcement arrested their first drone operator for allegedly interfering with firefighting operations and having to ground aircrafts on during the Trailhead Fire which burned in the Middle Fork American River canyon in both Placer County and El Dorado County.
As drones gain popularity, restrictions are tightening. Currently, there's a U.S. House Bill pending called the Wildfire Airspace Protection Act of 2017 that could land you five years in prison with a hefty fine.