This helicopter scoops water from Emerson Lake despite the smoke from the fire. If a drone was flying in the area, this helicopter would be grounded and the drone operator could face imprisonment or fine. Photo by Carol Roberts

CalFire warns — don’t use a drone during a wildfire

CalFire issues an urgent warning regarding the incursion of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, commonly known as drones, into firefighting airspace.

These incursions have raised serious concerns as they have led to the temporary suspension of critical arial firefighting operations on a half-dozen incidents so far this year.

The FAA regularly implements Temporary Flight Restrictions around wildfire areas to protect the safety of aircraft participating in firefighting operations. All aircraft, including drones, are explicitly prohibited from entering these restricted areas unless they are operated by an agency directly involved in wildfire suppression efforts. Even when a TFR is not in effect, drone pilots are strongly urged to avoid flying near wildfires as it is considered a crime to interfere with firefighting operations.

“The danger of flying drones near wildfires cannot be overstated,” said Chief Jake Sjolund, Staff Chief Tactical Air Operations. “Such actions jeopardize lives and have immediate consequences for firefighting agencies’ response efforts.”

When drones are detected near wildfires, fire response agencies will ground their aircraft to mitigate the risk of a midair collision. This delay in airborne response poses a significant threat to the safety of firefighters on the ground, residents, and properties in nearby communities.

Additionally, it can allow wildfires to expand, putting more lives and resources at risk.

Individuals who operate drones without proper authorization over wildfire-affected areas may be found in violation of federal, state, and local laws, regulations and ordinances, regardless of whether an order is in place or not. Those who are determined to have interfered with wildfire suppression efforts and/or endangered manned aircraft or people on the ground with a drone may face severe consequences, including civil penalties of up to $20,000 and potential criminal prosecution.