If you’ve been watching the news lately, you know that California has again been experiencing devastating fires.
And it’s not just California.
During the summer months wildfires are raging all over the hotter parts of the U.S.—and some rogue drone operators are making it hard for firefighters to do their jobs safely.
To put it simply, if you fly, they can’t. When drones are flown anywhere near an ongoing wildfire operation they make it too dangerous for fire personnel to do their jobs, which prolongs firefighting efforts and potentially puts both firefighters and nearby civilians in danger as they wait for the rogue drone to clear the sky.
If you fly your drone anywhere near a wildfire, you could get someone killed.
Flying a drone near a wildfire is also a federal crime, and in addition to the dangers it poses, could land you in legal trouble and get you a fine of up to $25,000.
Even though many drone pilots are aware of the dangers, it seems like there are still some out there who either don’t know, or don’t care. Despite growing efforts to educate pilots, the number of rogue drones interfering with firefighting operations also seems to be growing—the number was 2 in 2014, 25 in 2015, and 42 in 2016.
Just last week a drone flew over a helicopter that was dumping water on the Miles Fire at Burnt Peak, in Oregon, risking the lives of the firefighters in the helicopter and prolonging the time required for them to keep doing their job.
So what can you do as a drone pilot to make sure you’re flying safely during peak wildfire periods? Let’s take a look.
How you can avoid flying your drone near wildfires
You may want to fly your drone safely, but you’re just not sure how to get the information needed to avoid flying near ongoing wildfire operations.
Here are five things you can do to ensure that you won’t interfere with firefighters and endanger them and nearby civilians.
1. Use the FAA’s TFR List
Check this up-to-date list provided by the FAA of all areas where there is a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) in place due to wildfire. The list includes the locations and dates for which the TFR is in place, and should be your go-to reference if you have any uncertainty at all about whether you can fly in a given area.
2. Use the Current Wildland Fires Program
Last year, in an effort to keep drones from operating where there were ongoing wildfire operations, the U.S. Department of the Interior launched a data sharing program called Current Wildland Fires.
According to the Interior, more than 73,000 wildfires are reported across the United States each year, which is a lot of data to keep track of—their new program is free to use, and provides up-to-date information on the location of wildfires throughout the U.S.
Here’s how to use the program:
1. Register for free with Current Wildland Fires.
2. Once registered, login to your free account and go to this page, then search for the group “Current Wildland Fires” and request to “Join this group” to gain access to wildland fire location data.
3. Once you’re given permission to join you’ll be able to find up-to-date information on where wildfires are happening in your area. Here’s a screenshot of what that information looks like (you can zoom in and out):
3. Call the Flight Service Station
Before you fly, call FSS (Flight Service Station) to get up-to-date TFR information for your planned mission. You can reach them at 1-800-WX-BRIEF.
You should be able to speak with a live briefer when calling this number—if he or she doesn’t mention anything specifically about TFRs, you can always ask just to make sure there are none where you plan to fly.
4. Sign Up for FAA Notifications
The FAA regularly sends out notifications about TFRs due to wildfires and other scenarios. You can sign up to be on their list by following these steps:
1. Create an account with the FAA Safety Team here.
2. Login to your account and click on your email address in the upper right of the screen.
3. Select My Preferences and Profile.
4. Choose your email alert options (make sure to select the Selected ATC Notices so you can get the TFR alerts).
A note on these alerts: You’ll only get alerts for TFRs in and around your zip code, so don’t worry about your inbox being flooded with irrelevant information.
5. Check Twitter (and Google)
You don’t have to be a Twitter aficionado to get TFR information from Twitter. In fact, you don’t even need a Twitter account.
If you want TFR updates, you can try Googling queries like: Twitter TFR wildfire [date] or Twitter TFR wildfire [location], and so on.
Of course, you can also try various other Google searches to find current TFR information about your specific location and the date(s) on which you’d like to fly.
How are drones helping to fight wildfires?
Although the focus of this article is on rogue drones that endanger firefighting operations, drones have also been helping to fight fires.
Dr. Greg Crutsinger, founder of Scholar Farms, recently volunteered to use his experience as a drone pilot to help firefighting efforts in California, and documented his work in the video that appears below.
Dr. Crutsinger’s work is just one example of the ways drones are being used for good these days. We’ve also written extensively on the Los Angeles Fire Department’s new drone program, and the model they provide for other public agencies to rollout their own drones programs, and there are hundreds of other examples out there, with more every day.
Want to learn more about how fire departments are using drones in the field? Check out this article on seven ways fire departments use drones in their work.
Have some thoughts you’d like to share on other ways drone pilots can avoid flying over TFRs? Hop into this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to join the discussion.