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As Sand Fire rages, feds turn up heat in fight against drones interfering in wildfires

Drone intrusions a growing problem for firefighting efforts.
Source: US Bureau of Land Management
Drone intrusions a growing problem for firefighting efforts.

Firefighters battling wildfires will soon have another tool in their arsenal to attack a growing problem: interference from drones.

Illegal drone intrusions during wildfires such as the current Sand Fire in Los Angeles County are creating hazards for firefighting aircraft, but a new technology could literally ground the unmanned flying machines and make the skies safer again.

"It's been a problem each of the last couple of fire seasons, and we continue to see incursions," said Stanton Florea, a fire information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

The U.S. Interior Department said it was partnering with several drone industry companies and "activated a prototype warning system that provides real-time alerts and geo-fencing alarms to prevent drone pilots from interfering with firefighting operations."

This move comes as the incidents of drone intrusions over wildfires has more than doubled from 2014 to 2015, according to the Interior Department.

The agency developed the test system with DJI, a large manufacturer of unmanned aerial vehicles, and AirMap and Skyward, a provider of airspace intelligence and navigational services to unmanned aircraft.

Firefighters are forced to retreat as flame close in on them in Placerita Canyon at the Sand Fire on July 24, 2016 in Santa Clarita, California.
Getty Images
Firefighters are forced to retreat as flame close in on them in Placerita Canyon at the Sand Fire on July 24, 2016 in Santa Clarita, California.

The so-called geo-fencing system is currently installed on DJI UAVs, which could in the future allow authorities to ground drones if they enter restricted airspace once they reach the geo-fence perimeter.

Mark Bathrick, director of Interior's Office of Aviation Services, said in a statement the geo-fencing uses global positioning system tech "to create a virtual barrier," allowing the system to essentially "move us one step closer to eliminating this problem for wildfire managers."

Another key component in the plan is a warning system for drone pilots.

"This pilot project makes initial wildfire location data publicly available to commercial mapping providers that support UAS (unmanned aircraft system) operations, alerting drone pilots before they enter air space over an active wildland fire," Bathrick said.

Under the warning system, the drone pilot would get the alerts sent through smartphone apps such as AirMap iOS. The system is similar to current efforts that map drone-sensitive locations such as prisons and nuclear power plants.

The Interior Department said experience and data from this year's prototype will be used for a larger rollout of the program planned for the 2017 fire season.

The Interior Department, working in conjunction with other federal agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Forest Service, said it adopted a three-prong approach to the drone issue: to enhance public awareness, establish notification protocols and enforce penalties when violations occur.

Firefighters sometimes utilize unmanned aircraft to gather information about wildfires, but the unauthorized intrusion of the hobbyist or recreational drones in fire areas has been an growing irritant for firefighting agencies nationwide.

"If you fly, we can't, and that does have an impact on our aerial assault." -Robert Garcia, Angeles National Forest fire chief

On Sunday, firefighters battling the Sand Fire in Southern California had to shut down aerial firefighting operations for about 30 minutes after an unauthorized drone entered airspace that the FAA put under temporary restriction due to the active wildfire.

As of Tuesday morning, the Sand Fire in the northwestern portion of the Angeles National Forest had burned more than 37,500 acres, with containment at 10 percent. Authorities have said at least 18 homes have been lost and one person killed as a result of the blaze.

California officials have put significant resources on the ground and air fighting the Sand Fire, which was first reported Friday and is burning in an area with heavy brush and dry conditions worsened by the state's ongoing drought. Nearly 3,000 personnel are fighting the blaze and more than 20 firefighting aircraft are being used.

"Our effort to protect the property can be impacted by UAS's and drones in that area," Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Robert Garcia said during a Sand Fire press update Monday. "If you fly, we can't, and that does have an impact on our aerial assault."

According to fire officials, the drones are a hazard because they can get into an engine of a jet aircraft fighting a wildfire or strike a propeller-driven aircraft such as a heli-tanker. Aerial firefighting aircraft tend to fly low over fires and in the same general airspace as hobbyist drones.

Twenty-one drones were spotted at the scenes of wildfires nationwide in 2014-2015, and aircraft were grounded six times. And there have been at least two occasions when firefighting aircraft have had to take evasive actions to avert a collision with drones.

In this year alone, at least 15 unauthorized UAVs have been reported to affect aerial firefighting operations in California and other states, according to the Interior Department.

Earlier this month, a Placer County man was arrested in Northern California for allegedly piloting his hobby drone in June over the Trailhead Fire north of Sacramento. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said at the time of the arrest that the incursion forced aerial firefighting assets for a time to be grounded.

He was charged one misdemeanor count of interfering with firefighting operations and found after posting a video on social media. The fine for the misdemeanor is $1,000.

In the case of the Sand Fire drone intrusion, the person responsible for that unauthorized UAV flight could face stiffer penalties since the incursion was in a fire zone under FAA flight restrictions, according to Cal Fire spokesperson Lynne Tolmachoff. On top of criminal prosecution, civil penalties can reach $27,500.