Why Drones Can Interfere When Fighting Wildfires

Commercial drones like this one can interfere with aircraft battling Arizona wildfires.
Commercial drones like this one can interfere with aircraft battling Arizona wildfires. Courtesy of
Aircraft fighting the Goodwin wildfire near Prescott were grounded Wednesday evening after a drone was spotted flying near the blaze.

Drones over the fire area put firefighters "in an unsafe position where they may have to go into an area that's unsafe for them, instead of using helicopters," an official explained at a news briefing this morning. "So I just highly recommend that the public keep those drones out of the fire area."

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), drones generally fly at around the same altitude as firefighting aircraft — roughly 200 feet above the ground. And unlike other aircraft, which can communicate via radio, drone operators can unwittingly disrupt flight paths because pilots can't contact them.

"Aerial firefighting aircraft have no way to detect drones other than by seeing them, and visual detection is nearly impossible due to the small size of most drones. These factors make a mid-air collision with an unauthorized drone a distinct possibility," says the NIFC's website.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, temporary flight restrictions are often put in place around wildfires to protect firefighting aircraft from unmanned drones.

So, the task of fighting the wildfire falls entirely to those on the ground, putting firefighters at risk.

The response on social media was harsh after the Goodwin aircraft were grounded, with many commenting that drone operators should forget about getting near the blaze while planes and helicopters are airborne.
The latest map released by the county sheriff's office shows almost 25,000 acres have been burned. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared the fire to be a state of emergency in Yavapai County, and he is scheduled to visit the county today.
According to federal regulations, it's illegal to interfere with firefighters who are battling a blaze. Officials are investigating the incident.
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty