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Firefighters To Drone Operators: 'If You Fly, We Can't'

Photo Courtesy of www. nifc.gov
Flying a drone near a wildfire is breaking the law. Doing so can result in a significant fine

Firefighters contained a small wildfire Thursday in Williams despite a drone flying over the area that delayed operations. Fire officials reported more than 40 drones over wildfires in 2016 and several already this fire season.

The Williams fire burned less than a quarter mile away from homes. Kaibab National Forest fire officials immediately requested a helicopter drop water. But as it was preparing to launch the incident commander spotted a drone flying over the area and advised the pilot to stand down.

The drone eventually left so the helicopter along with ground crews were able to contain the fire at less than an acre. But it could have ended much differently. Justin Jager, interagency aviation officer for the Grand Canyon National Park, Coconino and Kaibab national forests, said tankers and helicopters fly at low altitudes.

“Drones come in all different kinds of sizes,” Jager said. “If you look at bird strikes, whether they’re going through the cockpit of a helicopter or fixed wing or through an engine that could be catastrophic. So if you have something the same size of a bird or bigger and of course a lot harder than a bird you could have a fatal or catastrophic incident. If you fly, we can’t.”

Jager said it’s delaying the aerial response to fires.

Fire officials are still investigating the cause of the Williams fire. The operator of the drone was not found.

Laurel Morales was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2011 to 2020.