Two air tankers, or Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATS), that were called to help battle a wildfire in Erath County were grounded on Feb. 24 after a drone was present in the fire’s perimeter.
“Flying a drone near a wildfire creates a serious safety hazard for firefighters and halts the assistance of any firefighting aircraft,” states a Texas A&M Forest Service press release. “Drones of any size can cause a serious or fatal accident if they collide with firefighting aircraft. Furthermore, pilots have no way to detect drones other than by seeing them.”
The first air tanker had already dropped its fire-resistant substance with the second one lining up to follow when the drone was spotted directly in their path.
“If we would have had to send all three of those (air tankers) away the other day, I have no doubt we would still be there,” said Erath County Volunteer Fire Rescue Coordinator Chris Brooks. “Instead of a 48-hour operation it could have been a 128-hour operation. Had it been a different type of fire that would be a different story because drones can provide useful information. But the pilot needs to be sure and coordinate with the person in command.”
Local licensed drone operator Fisher Rinderknecht said drone pilots are suppose to check Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and maps before taking off anywhere.
“Man aircraft always takes precedence over a drone. There’s usually a temporary flight restriction the FAA will send out as a notice, so before a drone pilot takes off they are suppose to check that,” Rinderknecht said. “I would say it’s a good possibility that the person that caused this was not licensed and did not go through the training and you can actually be jailed for it.”
In fact just last week a Seattle drone operator was sentenced to 30 days in jail with a $500 fine after being found guilty of reckless endangerment when his drone knocked a woman unconscious and injured another at Seattle’s 2015 Pride Parade.
“This is a brand new industry and the laws are new, so people just haven’t received the information they need,” Rinderknecht said.
Thankfully in the Erath County wildfire case, the air tankers were able to resume and area fire officials were able to extinguish the flames.
“While UAS or drones are fun to fly, they pose a direct threat to pilot safety on wildfires. If you fly, we can’t, which means potentially more threat to lives and property,” said Texas A&M Forest Service Program Coordinator Shawn Whitley. “If you see someone using a drone in the area of a wildfire, please contact your local law enforcement department.”