The Washington State Department of Natural Resources has embarked on a “left of launch” campaign to remind drone enthusiasts to keep their drones away from wildfires. The record-high temperatures during the traditional summer wildfire season in the West have already made this a busy year.
The term “left of launch” regarding airspace awareness and protection refers to actions taken to prevent careless, clueless, or nefarious drone operators from flying in unauthorized or restricted airspace before the drone takes off. Left of launch actions can include media campaigns meant to inform the general public of drone restrictions.
A common tactic for fighting wildfires is to use crewed aircraft to transport fire crews, equipment, water, and fire retardant to wildfires, especially in remote locations.
Some aircraft transport specialized wildfire fighting crews called smokejumpers. Smokejumpers are extensively deployed throughout the United States, including Alaska, where they offer their expertise as highly-trained firefighters and leaders for swift initial responses to wildland fires in remote regions. Upon landing near the fire, smokejumpers receive essential firefighting tools, food, and water via parachute, enabling them to be self-sufficient for 48 hours. This self-contained approach allows them to address fire incidents swiftly. Typically, smokejumpers operate from late spring to early fall, aligning with the peak wildfire season.
The United States Forest Service reports that firefighting aircraft operate at low altitudes, often just a few hundred feet above the ground, which coincides with the altitude range of drones flown by individuals and other entities. This proximity poses a significant risk of mid-air collisions or distractions for pilots, potentially resulting in severe or even fatal accidents. Instances of unauthorized UAS flights may prompt fire managers to temporarily suspend aerial wildfire suppression operations, including the deployment of air tankers with fire retardants and helicopters with water drops until the unauthorized UAS exits the airspace and there is confidence that it won’t return.
The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included Section 382, which was later codified as 18 USC § 40A. This provision established it as a federal offense to operate an unmanned aircraft over wildfires. If an individual knowingly or recklessly interferes with wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response efforts associated with wildfire suppression using an unmanned aircraft, they can face penalties under this section, including fines and imprisonment for up to 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.
The U.S. Forest Service has its own website resource dedicated to educating drone pilots- Recreational Drone Tips, including information on protecting wildlife and the environment.
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Post Image- Twitter screenshot- If You Fly We Can’t. (Image Credit: Twitter- Washington Department of Natural Resources)