California authorities complained over the weekend that illegally operated recreational drones interfered with their efforts to suppress the recent spate of wildfires there, forcing helicopter tankers to stand down on several occasions for 30 to 40 minutes per incident. Early Friday morning, helicopters flying on the Maria fire near Santa Paula were grounded after a pilot of a Ventura County fire department helicopter reported unauthorized drones in the area. Later in the day, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub reminded recreational drone pilots who fly on fires that they are violating federal law and face stiff penalties for doing so.
Specifically, U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, 43 CFR 9212.1(f), states it is illegal to resist or interfere with the efforts of firefighter(s) to extinguish a fire. Flying drones on fires also violates numerous state laws. Through October, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported 19 separate incidents of illegal drones flying on fires in 2019. The NIFC reminds drone pilots, “hobbyist drones and firefighting aircraft don't mix” and create a variety of safety and operational issues when firefighting aircraft need to stand down. “This prolongs firefighting operations; in many cases, wildfires become larger when aircraft are not able to drop fire retardant, water, monitor wildfires from above, or provide tactical information to firefighters.”
Conversely, more fire departments are turning to drones as firefighting tools, leveraging the ability of onboard sensors and cameras to map, track, identify hot spots, and locate trapped victims. In August, Appleton, Wisconsin-based Pierce Manufacturing, a producer of fire engines and related equipment, unveiled a specialized, self-piloting firefighting drone that can fly tethered from a fire truck. The “Situational Awareness System” provides aerial and thermal imagery and can be hard-wired to the host vehicle, eliminating concerns about battery life and the need for a licensed operator.
Pierce is just one of several companies offering a tethered drone tailored for firefighting intelligence. Another company, Aerones, has developed a large, tethered drone with 28 motors and 16 batteries that can spray water on fires up to 948 feet agl and lift up to 441 pounds.