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Keep drones grounded during wildfires, experts advise

LANSING — It may be tempting to capture spectacular aerial photos of wildfires, but using drones is not only reckless, it’s illegal and could have deadly consequences, firefighting experts say.

Both commercial and recreational use of drones have increased over the past several years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

More than a million recreational drones that capture high-resolution images and video and costing less than $100 are registered with the FAA.

Their popularity poses a problem for firefighters, said Matt Woodwick, an assistant aviation supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Over the past four wildfire seasons, recreational users have interfered with suppression efforts by flying in areas restricted to firefighting planes and helicopters.

The Minnesota DNR reminds people to keep drones grounded near fires.

“If we look at the numbers, it may seem small,” Woodwick said. “We generally see one or two occurrences every year in Minnesota. But if we look at it in consequences terms, the consequences can be fatal.”

A drone collision could cause a helicopter or plane to crash, he said. Its mere presence could allow fires to burn uncontrollably.

“We just shut our complete operation down with our aircraft,” Woodwick said. “At a minimum, it can destroy more of our natural resources or someone could lose their personal property, and the far end of that would be a fatality as well.”

Most recreational users are likely unaware that flying over wildfires illegally interferes with emergency response, Woodwick said.

In early May, firefighters spotted a drone flying over a wildfire near Hibbing in Northeast Minnesota. Officers located the operator, who willingly landed the drone and was released with a warning, Woodwick said.

Wildfires are most common in spring, but lack of rain in the summer increases fire risk. Officials said Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin are drier than normal this year.

Kevin Jacobs, a Michigan DNR aviation manager said the department recently had an incident that involved a volunteer fire department using a drone to observe a fire.

The DNR plane was grounded while the drone operator was located and asked to leave. That incident ended without conflict, but he said it’s an example of why recreational drone operators should be aware of the rules.

While Wisconsin hasn’t had any reported problems with drones, the state’s DNR created a policy this spring to ensure safety if drones were spotted flying over fires, said Catherine Koele, a wildfire prevention specialist for that agency.

Officials anticipated the public spending more time outdoors because the coronavirus pandemic might increase recreational use. That plan also requires immediately stopping aerial efforts to fight fires.

“I think that the key message for the public is it is important to keep drones out of an airspace where fire suppression activations are going on because it allows us to continue operations and keep the public safe,” Koele said.

Operators can be fined more than $20,000 if their drone causes operations to shut down or causes injury.

There’s no formal procedure for reporting drone interference, so officials say the number of incidents is likely higher.

There are also restrictions to keep drones away from wildlife. These include rules on avoiding near-contact with animals, staying clear of nesting areas and obeying signs in areas that restrict drone use, like sanctuaries and other protected areas.

Editor’s note: Carin Tunney writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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