The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently issued multiple Notice to Air Missions (NOTAMs) in the Southwestern United States due to wildfires, FDC 3/8723, FDC 3/2822, FDC 3/4120 and FDC 3/4121.
The TFRs are meant to provide a safe environment for firefighting aircraft operating in the region.
According to the United States Forest Service, firefighting aircraft fly at very low altitudes, typically just a couple of hundred feet above the ground, the same altitude as drones flown by members of the public and others. This creates the potential for a mid-air collision or pilot distraction that could result in a serious or fatal accident. In addition, an unauthorized UAS that loses its communication link could fall from the sky, causing serious injuries or deaths of firefighters or members of the public on the ground. Unauthorized UAS flights could lead fire managers to suspend aerial wildfire suppression operations – such as air tankers dropping fire retardant and helicopters dropping water – until the UAS has left the airspace and they are confident it won’t return.
Last month, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte enacted a bill that strengthens the consequences for drone operators who impede aerial wildfire suppression operations. Offenders can now be charged with a criminal misdemeanor, potentially resulting in a maximum of six months of imprisonment and substantial civil fines. This measure aims to deter interference with wildfire suppression efforts and ensure the safety and effectiveness of these critical operations.
The bill resulted from a drone incident in August 2022, when a wildfire near Montana’s capital city broke out. To suppress the fire, extensive aerial operations were undertaken by authorities, involving the deployment of large air tankers for fire retardant drops and helicopters for water drops. Unfortunately, the progress of these operations was hindered due to the presence of an unauthorized drone flying in the vicinity. Prompt action was taken by the Helena Police Department, leading to the identification of the drone operator and subsequent impoundment of the drone.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, in 2022, there were 15 public drone incursions during wildfire suppression efforts. It was reported that aerial firefighting efforts were shut down 13 times due to drone incursions that year. The drone incursions occurred in Montana, Idaho, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and North Carolina. The average number of drone incursions per year during the 2015 to 2021 time period was 28.
In 2018, Section 382 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 was codified as 18 USC § 40A, making it a federal crime to operate an unmanned aircraft over wildfires. An individual who operates an unmanned aircraft and knowingly or recklessly interferes with wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response efforts related to wildfire suppression can be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.
The FAA has released a digital toolkit titled “Drones and Wildfires are a Toxic Mix.” The FAA works closely with its safety partners to get the word out about the dangers of flying drones near wildfires. Their partners include NIFC, the US Forest Service, Know Before You Fly, and CALFIRE.
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Post Image- Map as of June 21st, 2023, showing the locations and sizes of wildfires burning in the Southwest United States. (Image Credit: National Interagency Fire Center)