You see smoke, maybe flames, firefighters, fire engines and aircraft. Your curiosity is activated. You have a UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System), commonly known as a drone. You want a better look at what is going on over there. Please DO NOT launch your drone to investigate. This could be fatal, you could end up killing someone and it is against the law. Per the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, 43 CFR 9212.1(f), it is illegal to resist or interfere with the efforts of firefighter(s) to extinguish a fire. Doing so can result in a significant fine of over $20,000 and potential criminal prosecution. Be smart and don’t fly your drone anywhere near a wildfire. No amount of video or photos are worth the consequences.
Drones interfere, endangering people involved with wildland fire aircraft operations such as air tankers, helicopters and other firefighting aircraft necessary to suppress wildland fires. These aircraft maintain close radio communications with each other while in the air. Aerial firefighting missions including aerial supervision, air tanker retardant drops, helicopter water drops, rappel operations and smokejumper para-cargo missions occur between ground level and 200 feet above ground level. The same altitude many hobbyist drones fly and our aircraft cannot communicate with the hobby flier. Often a temporary flight restriction (TFR) is put in place around wildfires to protect firefighting aircraft. No one other than the agencies involved in the firefighting effort can fly any manned or unmanned aircraft in such a TFR.
Last year, 2018, the National Interagency Fire Center Reported 28 UAS incursions during active wildland fires. In almost every instance, aviation operations were affected. When a drone is spotted, aircraft immediately cease firefighting operations and land for safety. Even a tiny drone can cause a serious or fatal accident if it collides with aircraft.
Firefighters working on the ground who rely on these aircrafts are left without help from above jeopardizing their safety. When aircraft are grounded due to an intrusion everyone in the path of the fire is endangered. Firefighters or others could be injured or a fatal accident could occur. This prolongs firefighting operations and often wildfires become larger when aircraft are not able to drop fire retardant, water, monitor wildfires from above, or provide tactical information to firefighters. Homes and other values at risk could burn needlessly.
Every time aircraft are grounded during a UAS interference, it compounds the cost of fire expenses and adds costs taxpayers have to endure every time fire managers are forced to stop the operation. Halting firefighting actions can increase firefighting costs quickly by paying for aircraft that can’t be used, increasing risk and damage to infrastructure and increasing the size of the fire, just to name a few.
For more information on Forest Service Policy and Hobby or Recreational Use of UAS on National Forest System Lands visit: