Wildfire managers worried drones could hurt firefighting efforts

Published: Thursday, May 1 2014 11:48 a.m. MDT

Fire managers are concerned people using drones to fly over fire areas could interfere with helicopters or air tankers and possibly cause an accident.

James Young, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Wildfire managers in Utah think the state is in for another long fire season, especially in southern Utah where it is very dry. They’re also concerned about a relatively new hobby that could make fighting fires a bit more difficult.

Drones, or remote-controlled helicopters, are becoming more popular with the public — and they're getting cheaper too. Cameras on the machines give operators a great vantage point of an area, from an angle many people aren’t used to seeing.

Wildfire managers, like Mike Melton with Great Basin Incident Management, are concerned about what might happen if people fly drones over active wildfires.

“This is still pretty new to us, but it’s something we want to be proactive on,” Melton said; “and when you’re proactive in the area of safety, that’s always a good thing for anyone.”

As an air attack supervisor with Great Basin, one of Melton’s main responsibilities is to coordinate aerial support on wildfires. His concern, of course, is having one of those flying drones get in the way of firefighting helicopters and airplanes, possibly causing an accident.

“We want to be cognizant of that, and we also want the public to think about it too — that this could be a real impact on the safety of aviators flying on a forest fire,” he said.

Right now, anyone can fly a drone; the FAA isn’t regulating them. Federal agents say in the future they plan to look into how the machines should be handled, but for now it seems all wildfire managers can do is inform the public of potential risks.

“We’re just going to want to ask the people for their cooperation, and that’s all we can do at this point,” Melton said. “… (we) just really plead with the public to use a little bit of common sense when it comes to these sorts of things.”

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