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Drones Emerge as Major Problem for Washington Firefighters

So far this year state and federal officials have had to ground their aircraft at least seven times due to unauthorized drone flights near active wildfires, according to state officials.

A view of the Lyle Hill Fire in Klickitat County, Wash., as seen from the cockpit of a Washington Department of Natural Resources helicopter.
Image courtesy of the Washington Department of Natural Resources (via X/Twitter)
(TNS) — While wildfire seasons grow longer across the Pacific Northwest and the fires themselves burn larger swathes of Earth, yet another problem is emerging: drones.

People flying their drones in flight-restricted areas to catch a glimpse — or perhaps even photos or video — of the wildfires are interrupting firefighters at work and potentially causing even greater risks of the flames spreading farther, state officials say.

"Can't believe we have to say this, but: STOP FLYING DRONES NEAR WILDFIRES," a spokesperson for Washington's Department of Natural Resources wrote on social media. "DRONES GROUND OUR AIRCRAFT."

In short, when a wildfire breaks out, air traffic around the area is generally restricted to the public, including those who fly drones. Firefighters need the space clear from other aircraft so their helicopters and planes can fly unimpeded, examine the area and drop water over the fires.

"*deep sigh,*" DNR's post continued.

So far this year state and federal officials have had to ground their aircraft at least seven times due to unauthorized drone flights, said DNR spokesperson Thomas Kyle-Milward. Those groundings waste valuable time and give way for wildfires to grow out of control and into something "potentially unstoppable," he said.

One of the first incidents this year took place in June when aircrews were forced out of the area around the Iron Creek fire due to a drone, according to DNR. That fire sparked on June 3 and burned about 17 acres around the Iron Creek Campground south of Randle, Lewis County.

This month, drones have served as a repeated threat at the nearly 6,000-acre Sourdough fire in North Cascades National Park, which continues to burn, said Alan Lawson, commander of Incident Management Team 10.

Not only can privately flown drones hinder firefighters' ability to fly their aircraft, Lawson said, but they can also keep firefighting pilots grounded until they're able to verify that the threat of collision no longer remains.

"Drones have provided us with great technology for fighting fires," Lawson said in a text message. "But the private use of drones has created challenges for us, for sure."

One drone at low elevation near the fire shut down firefighting flights, Lawson said; another attempted to fly near the team's "helibase." A pilot also saw another unidentified drone above their flight paths late last week, he added, though they were able to keep flying cautiously in that case.

"Interference with our aerial operations could cost our fire crews crucial time," DNR said online. "Our firefighting operations are more important than those 12 likes you'll get on Instagram."

The problem isn't limited to Washington either. According to the U.S. Forest Service, firefighters across the country have been interrupted by drones. Depending on their location, the flights might also violate local, state or federal laws.

©2023 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.