LOS ANGELES – As flames rapidly spread along a hillside in Santa Paula on Thursday night, firefighters battling the blaze were faced with a potentially perilous dilemma.
Officials were forced to ground a firefighting helicopter with night-flying capabilities several times as a drone circled the area, its pilot apparently trying to snap overhead photographs of the growing Maria fire.
“We had two drone intrusions,” Ventura County Fire Capt. Brian McGrath said. “They both affected air ops for one hour.”
The Fire Department put out a blast on social media, telling people to keep their drones at home: “If you fly, we can’t.”
Recreational drones have disrupted firefighting capabilities in the past. The 2015 Lake fire in the San Bernardino Mountains grew after a drone interrupted plans to deploy an air tanker water drop.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, aerial firefighting efforts have been shut down at least nine times this year because of drone use, and at least 20 drone incursions have hindered firefighting capabilities nationwide from January through October.
“Even a tiny drone can cause a serious or fatal accident if it collides with firefighting aircraft. In most situations, if drones are spotted near a wildfire, firefighting aircraft must land due to safety concerns,” the national fire agency said.
Drones have proved useful when in the right hands, though. In 2017, the Los Angeles Fire Department used drones for the first time while combating the Skirball fire in Bel-Air.
“They provide real-time situational awareness from a bird’s-eye perspective to the incident commander so they can see what’s going on at their emergency and then change their tactics accordingly to mitigate the hazards,” Capt. Erik Scott, an LAFD spokesman, said at the time.
But the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits recreational drone users from flying near emergencies and “any type of accident response, law enforcement activities, firefighting, or hurricane recovery efforts.”
The unmanned aircraft can put air and ground crews at risk while battling a fire, and, like in the Maria fire, slow efforts to contain a blaze.