Drones are an increasing safety hazard at wildfires; geofencing may help

drone forest fire
A drone flying over a wildfire. Photo by the Bureau of Land Management.

By Ryan Maye Handy and Bill Gabbert

Since 2014 instances of drones shutting down air operations over wildfires has increased despite repeated warnings to the public.

While there is no formal system to track the number of times Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or drones, have invaded the airspace over wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service has managed to collect some numbers thanks to public reports. And the numbers seem to show that warnings to not fly drones over wildfires often go unheeded.

“In spite of increased and ongoing public education from the interagency fire community and incident management teams by way of the internet, social media, press conferences, news release, etc., about the risks and hazards hobby drone operators present to aerial firefighting aircraft, the public continues flying hobby drones near or over wildfires,” said Mike Ferris, a public information officer with the Forest Service.

Earlier this summer, following a spate of issues with drones flying over California wildfires, the National Interagency Fire Center issued a statement cautioning drone pilots that they could face criminal charges if caught flying drones over a fire. Then in July, CALFire made its first arrest of a drone operator, who now faces a misdemeanor charge in connection to flying the drone over a California wildfire. Ferris did not know about criminal charges against other drone pilots in connection to wildfires.

Forest Service officials say that the small aircraft pose a tremendous threat to the low-flying planes that work above firefighters. A collision of a drone and an airtanker, for instance, could be disastrous, Ferris said.

“Aerial firefighting aircraft, such as air tankers and helicopters, fly at very low altitudes, the same as UAS flown by the general public, creating the potential for mid-air collision that could be fatal for aviation and/or ground firefighters, as well as members of the public,” he said.

Nonetheless, problems have persisted. In the past two months, drones flying too close to wildfires grounded planes in New Mexico, Arizona, Minnesota, Alaska, Utah, Montana and California. This year, there have been 34 instances of drones encroaching on firefighting airspace, and 12 times planes were grounded, according to the Forest Service.  According to the June Wildfire Airspace Situations report, aircraft on three fires in Utah were grounded the span of two days in July due to drone activity.

Those numbers are up slightly from 2015, when drones were spotted near wildfires 21 times in five states–California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, Ferris said.

“This resulted in aerial firefighting operations being temporarily shut down on at least ten occasions, which may have caused wildfires to grow larger and unduly threaten lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources,” Ferris said.

This summer, when nearby drones forced the shutdown of air operations in Montana and California, aircraft were grounded for 30 to 45 minutes. Although drones briefly shut down air operations over the Soberanes fire in Northern California, the upset came at a crucial time—just days after the massive fire exploded and was burning with little to no containment. The fire’s incident management team has made anti-drone warnings a permanent fixture on its InciWeb site, where it posts all updates on the fire.

One of the largest manufacturers of drones, DJI, has incorporated a geofencing feature into their drone control software that prevents flying into locations where they don’t belong. The system was recently upgraded to keep the pilotless aircraft away from airports, prohibited and restricted airspace, national security sites, prisons, and power plants, among other locations. Additionally, when a user is connected to the internet, the software will provide live guidance on Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) including those relating to forest fires, major league sporting events, and other changing conditions.

The Department of Interior has implemented a prototype of a system, some might call it a beta version, that provides data allowing the drone manufacturers to add another layer of geofencing. It provides near real time information about the location of wildfires, using data collected by the Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information (IRWIN) service. During the prototype year, the data is supplied to two volunteer, commercial mapping providers that support drone operations, AirMap and Skyward. It is available on the web and as an IOS app (Airmap) that allows anyone to use the information to avoid wildfires. The fire location data is available online and in the app as soon as the local dispatcher loads the fire location data into the system. It appears on the maps as a 2-mile radius circle along with TFRs.

A screenshot from the Airmap website showing the area of the Clayton Fire at Lower Lake, California August 15, 2016. The small red circle is the 2-mile radius that appears as soon as the dispatcher enters the location. The larger circle is the TFR.

As long as the DJI drone operator is connected to the internet, the system will warn the operator not to fly into the area, even before a TFR is established. However at this stage, during the prototype or beta period, it will only be a warning and can be ignored. DJI and other drone companies could change that next year, making it impossible to fly into a fire area.

It is hoped that other drone manufacturers, in addition to DJI, will begin to use the real time geofencing data available from the Department of the Interior. But, a weak link in the system is that the drone operator must be connected to the internet to obtain the near real time updates for wildfire location information. Many wildfires occur in remote settings without internet access; however, responsible pilots, whether flying manned or unmanned aircraft, will do pre-flight planning to identify potential hazards along the route prior to their flight. Drone operators are reminded if you see smoke in the vicinity, leave your drone at home. Because, if you fly, firefighting aircraft can’t.

Meanwhile, it seems that the public’s fascination with drone technology drives them to keep flying drones over wildfires. A quick search on Youtube.com turns up many cautionary clips warning drone operators to stay away from wildfires—but there are just as many clips of wildfire footage captured by drones.

Martin Mars damaged at Wisconsin airshow


(Note to our readers: the above video was shot several days ago during a successful demonstration flight of the Martin Mars.)

The Martin Mars struck shallow rocks in Lake Winnebago on Friday while doing a demonstration during Wisconsin’s EAA AirVenture Oshkosh airshow, according to a Canadian news report.

Pilots were scooping water out of the lake when an engine warning light came on, and they were forced to abandon take off. The plane struck shallow rocks, which punched a few repairable holes in the plane’s belly, according to the news report.

Yakima firefighters save helicopter from crash landing

Last week members of the Yakima Fire Department rushed to save a damaged helicopter from a crash landing at the Yakima Air Terminal.

The helicopter had been on a search and rescue mission for a lost hiker when its fuselage and one of its skids were heavily damaged, according to local media reports. 

In dramatic fashion, the helicopter was forced to hover over the tarmac while firefighters cobbled together a landing platform out of wooden palettes, The Yakima Herald reported. Some crew members and passengers jumped out of the helicopter while it hovered.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Patrick.

Martin Mars demonstration flight in Oshkosh, WI

Martin JRM Mars demonstrates a water drop at Oshkosh, WI on 25 July 2016 for EAA AirVenture 2016 at Whitman Field.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Al and Fred.

Unmanned aircraft system goes on test flight over Paradise fire

The National Park Service announced on its Facebook page on Friday than an unmanned aircraft system, otherwise known as a drone, took a test flight over the Paradise fire at Olympic National Park to gather infrared data.

Here’s the park’s statement from the Facebook page: 


An operational test of UAS on the Paradise fire at Olympic National Park took place recently. Learn more about the purpose of the flights and check out the footage.

Unmanned Aircraft System was a Success on the Paradise Fire

For the past week an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was utilized on the Paradise Fire. The system was demonstrating possible applications in wildland fire management and suppression. UAS’s can supplement manned aircraft, especially at times of reduced visibility due to smoky conditions and at night when manned firefighting aircraft may be limited in flying.

The primary goal of the UAS on the Paradise Fire was to gather infrared information. This information assisted fire officials in pinpointing the fires perimeter and identifying areas of intense heat. The extremely large old growth trees in the area of the Paradise Fire create a thick canopy that makes mapping the perimeter and observing hotspots from the air very difficult without infrared capabilities.

This was an operational demonstration provided by Insitu, Inc. with no direct cost to the government. The demonstration was one of a series of ongoing missions to further UAS use on wildland fire in national parks and is part of an interagency strategy for UAS integration into wildland fire support. The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allowed the use of their land for the aircraft launch and recovery site. The purpose of the demonstration was to show the capabilities and effectiveness of unmanned aircraft technology on wildland fires. The ultimate goal for UAS use on wildland fire is to supply incident management teams (IMT) with real-time data products, and information regarding fire size and growth, fire behavior, fuels, and areas of heat concentration. Additional applications, such as search and rescue and animal surveys, may be explored.

As the fire season continues and more wildfires burn throughout the west, manned aviation resources are spread thin across the country and have become very difficult to acquire. In addition to supplementing aerial resources, UAS’s are quieter than manned aircraft, use less fuel, and present a much lower risk to employees.

This was not the first UAS to be flown in the Olympic National Park. The park partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey in 2012 to monitor sediment transport in the Elwha River as part of the Elwha restoration project using a Raven UAS.

The ScanEagle UAS that was flown on the Paradise Fire weighed approximately 50 lbs with a wingspan of 10.2 feet. The UAS was only operated within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporary flight restriction (TFR) area. The TFR has been lifted.

Erikson Inc. aircrane part of deal to help fight fires in Turkey

S-64E Aircrane, Erickson Inc.
S-64E Aircrane, Erickson Inc.

Erickson Inc. will be sending an S-64E Aircrane to Turkey to help fight wildfires, as a part of an agreement with Pan Aviation, Erickson announced on Aug. 24.

The Aircrane will be working around Istanbul and in the surrounding areas of Turkey for 365 days a year for two years. The contact was signed after a 10-month trial period with Istanbul. The aircraft will be based at the Ataturk International Airport, and will be available upon special request to areas outside of Istanbul.

Large helibase set up in Colville, Washington

With the FAA control tower in the background and a Bell 205 A1 ++ in the foreground, a Bell 206 L4 carrying members of Swan Valley Helitack from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, take off for a mission on the Carpenter Road Fire.
With the FAA control tower in the background and a Bell 205 A1 ++ in the foreground, a Bell 206 L4 carrying members of Swan Valley Helitack from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, take off for a mission on the Carpenter Road Fire.

Tom Story, who is in Washington documenting some of the wildfire activity, spent time on Monday at the Hopps Helibase near Colville, WA. While in Washington. Here is his dispatch from Colville on Aug. 25, 2015.

See more of Tom’s photos from Washington on www.wildfiretoday.com


Walker’s Area Command, based in Colville, WA, in August of the 2015 fire season, has setup a large helibase on farmland south of town. The property is owned by the Hopps family, thus giving the base it’s name. The facility allows both civilian contract helicopters a base and a location for military ships to stage until needed on the numerous fires in the area.

At Hopps this morning; August 25th, were a pair of Bell 205 A1++, two AStar A350s, one Bell 206 L4 as well as one of Columbia Helicopters Boeing Vertols joined by a couple of Blackhawks and a Chinook flying in from their overnight base at Fairchild A.F.B outside of Spokane.

The Federal Aviation Administration is operating a temporary tower at the helibase since up to 20 helicopters are anticipated to be using the base as the fire season continues in northeast Washington.

An Army Chinook lumbers overhead on final approach for a landing at the Hopps Helibase over a Columbia Helicopters Boeing Vertol.
An Army Chinook lumbers overhead on final approach for a landing at the Hopps Helibase over a Columbia Helicopters Boeing Vertol.
Members of Swan Valley Helitack from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest prepare for a mission to the Carpenter Road Fire near Colville, WA August 25, 2015.
Members of Swan Valley Helitack from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest prepare for a mission to the Carpenter Road Fire near Colville, WA August 25, 2015.
With the FAA control tower in the background, crews prepare helicopters at the Hopps Helibase for the day's missions on large fires around Colville, WA.
With the FAA control tower in the background, crews prepare helicopters at the Hopps Helibase for the day’s missions on large fires around Colville, WA.