Reminder: Drone flights over fires puts lives at risk

illustrated graphic depicting a drone on a collision path with an airplane dropping fire retardant. Below, a firefighter builds fireline next to a burning home and trees, and a family flees a second home ahead of the fire.

ROSEBURG, Ore. – July 25, 2018 – Fire officials with the Douglas Forest Protective Association, Umpqua National Forest and the Roseburg District of the Bureau of Land Management urge individuals and organizations that fly Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as “drones,” to stay away from active wildfire scenes to ensure the safety of firefighters and the effectiveness of wildfire suppression operations. There are currently numerous wildfires burning in southwest Oregon, including the South Umpqua Complex, which is located about 45 miles southeast of Roseburg.

Nationally, there have been at least 14 drone incursions in areas where wildland firefighting efforts are underway since the beginning of the year.

Aerial firefighting aircraft, such as air tankers and helicopters, fly at very low altitudes, typically just a couple of hundred feet above the ground, the same elevation flown by drones. This creates the potential for a mid-air collision or pilot distraction that can result in a fatal accident.

A drone that loses its communication link can fall from the sky, causing serious injuries or deaths of firefighters on the ground.

Unauthorized drone flights over or near active wildfires can lead fire managers to suspend aerial wildfire suppression operations – such as airtankers dropping fire retardant and helicopters dropping water – until the drone has left the airspace and they are confident it won’t return.

Suspending air operations decreases the effectiveness of wildfire suppression operations, reducing the efficiency of firefighting efforts and potentially allowing wildfires to grow larger or threaten lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources.

All unauthorized drone flights over or near wildfires on public or private lands will be reported to the FAA and law enforcement agencies.

Individuals who are determined to have interfered with wildfire suppression efforts may be subject to civil penalties of up to $20,000 and potentially criminal prosecution.

“It may be hard for individuals and organizations who aren’t familiar with wildfire suppression operations to understand why it’s so dangerous for them to fly a UAS over or near an active wildfire,” Terri Brown, Umpqua National Forest deputy fire staff, said. “Firefighting aircraft typically fly in smoky, windy, and turbulent conditions. Safety depends on knowing what other aircraft are operating in the airspace and where they are at all times and this is compromised by the presence of unauthorized aircraft, including UAS.”

The 14 documented instances of individuals and organizations flying drones without authorization over or near wildfires has resulted in aerial firefighting operations being temporarily shut down on 11 occasions.

In 2017, there were 38 documented instances of individuals and organizations flying drones without authorization over or near wildfires in 12 states (Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming). This resulted in aerial firefighting operations being temporarily shut down on 26 occasions.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has imposed a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) over the South Umpqua Complex Fire area.

The TFR requires aircraft, manned or unmanned, that are not involved in wildfire suppression operations to obtain permission to enter specified airspace.

The FAA and state and federal fire agencies consider all UAS, including those flown by members of the public for hobby or recreation purposes, to be aircraft and therefore subject to TFRs.

A list of temporary flight restrictions in effect is available online at http://tfr.faa.gov/tfr2/list.html.

Avoid flying a drone anywhere near a wildfire. No amount of video or photos are worth the consequences.

graphic displaying info in caption and map of states affected so far in 2018 - CO, CA, TX, MN, AZ and UT

If you fly, we can’t: There have been at least 14 drone incursions into temporary flight restriction areas around wildland firefighting, shutting down aerial firefighting efforts at least 11 times. Drones violated TFRs 36 times in 2017, 41 times in 2016, 25 times in 2015, and 16 times in 2014. Keep drones away from wildfires!


Source information: USDA Forest Service – Umpqua National Forest, Bureau of Land Management – Roseburg District, and Douglas Forest Protective Association (serving Douglas County, Oregon) public information staff.

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