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An aerial view of the Douglas County Complex fire that was ignited by lightning last month.
An aerial view of the Douglas County Complex fire that was ignited by lightning last month.

Five lightning strikes last month ignited forest fires just south of Lake Chelan in Washington state, engulfing more than 22,000 acres and requiring the expertise of 50 firefighters to extinguish.

Now, we are learning that on the first day of the fire, dubbed the Douglas County Complex fire, a drone was spotted by a pilot, hampering firefighting efforts for a short period of time.

A pilot, who was gathering additional information about the fire, observed a drone in his airspace before quickly landing by a parked vehicle three miles outside of the fire’s perimeter. And, while the story ends there, it could have been much worse, according to lawmakers and other officials.

Just minutes earlier, the reconnaissance mission had been joined by three other fire-fighting aircraft, including a tanker and a forest service

“Yes, this is really a problem and it’s growing,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Paul Rhynard. “The reason being every time a drone is reported everyone has to stop all air traffic — all flights are grounded and the ones in the air have to turnaround.”

As wildfires continue to rage across Washington state, claiming nearly half a million acres and the lives of three firefighters, there’s another threat that people may not know about: drones.

These devices, often flown by amateur pilots, are increasingly interfering with firefighting efforts across the country, the U.S. Forest Service says.

Over the past 12 months, the Forest Service has counted 13 wildfires in which drones interfered with firefighting aircraft, up from only five the year before. This fire season alone has seen 11 situations where firefighting aircraft have either shut down completely or removed themselves from the area due to an unmanned aircraft being used in the airspace. Only one incident in Washington state has been properly reported to authorities.

“Although the majority of UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) incursions have occurred in southern California, UAS incursions are not limited to one area; Washington and Utah have also seen UAS activity affect fire suppression efforts,” according to a memo issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Perhaps, the most high-profile example of a drone impacting firefighting efforts was a fire in California’s San Bernardino National Forest that burned 4,250 acres, including 11 eleven structures and 64 vehicles. When the fire was over Interstate 15, five unauthorized drones were flown in the airspace and firefighting aircraft were grounded for the safety of the firefighters for 20 minutes. During that time, the fires continued to spread.

To educate the public on the hazards of flying drones over wildfires, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service, recently released a poster with the title: “If you fly, we can’t.” The posters list the dangers of flying drones above forest fires, including the possibility of injury or death to firefighters and hampering their ability to protect lives, property and natural resources. Additionally, it says that managers may suspend aerial firefighting, which will in turn allow fires to spread.

A ScanEagle drone launches at Boeing’s test facility in eastern Oregon. (Boeing photo)
A ScanEagle drone launches at Boeing’s test facility in eastern Oregon. (Boeing photo)

But, for the most part, there’s no ramifications if a person is caught flying a drone.

Currently, several government agencies, including the FAA, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Security Council, are working on possible legal actions that can help reduce the issue of drones during emergency response events.

Washington State Senator Maria Cantwell is also drafting a bill that would include a provision that names specific penalties for private citizens that operate drones within temporary restricted air spaces and disrupt fire operations. Cantwell’s press secretary said it’s too early to know what those penalties may be, but the full text of the bill will be out in the coming weeks.

While amateur aircraft have been spotted in the sky, officials are not yet using the aircraft themselves to assist with fighting the fires. Last year, the FAA approved the use of drones to monitor wildfires in Washington state. But according to the Department of Natural Resources, they don’t own any drones, but are hoping to pilot some soon with the assistance of Boeing.

“We hope to eventually have a drone to do that and to not put our pilots in harm’s way. There will be a tremendous benefit. We are getting there slowly,” she said.

Previously on GeekWire: Drones meet planes: U.S. pilots encounter 650 UAVs so far this year, a 173% increase over 2014

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