Fight­ing wild­fires, pi­lots fear en­coun­ters with drones

Lodi News-Sentinel - - BUSINESS - By Richard Stradling

Pi­lot Robert Delleo has been fly­ing for the N.C. For­est Ser­vice for 10 years and says it’s not un­heard-of to hit a bird as you’re skim­ming just above the tree­tops over a wild­fire.

What he re­ally wor­ries about, though, is the pos­si­bil­ity of hit­ting a drone, which fly at that same al­ti­tude and are just as im­pos­si­ble to see when you’re mov­ing at more than 200 mph.

“Birds are flesh and bone. They have a ten­dency to give, though they do dam­age to air­planes,” says Delleo, who di­rects the For­est Ser­vice’s avi­a­tion divi­sion. “But if we were to run into a drone, which are not flesh and bone, it would be cat­a­strophic.”

Twice this spring, the For­est Ser­vice has en­coun­tered drones while its air­craft have been fly­ing over wild­fires. That prompted Steve Trox­ler, the sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture, to put out an bul­letin this week re­mind­ing peo­ple that it’s a felony for a drone to dam­age or in­ter­fere with a manned flight and to urge peo­ple to keep their drones away from wild­fires.

"To put it sim­ply, drones and fire­fight­ing air­craft don’t mix,” Trox­ler said in a state­ment. “If you fly, the fire­fight­ers can’t. Aerial col­li­sions be­tween drones and air­craft could oc­cur. Due to these safety con­cerns, when drones are spot­ted near wild­fires, air­craft must land or move away to other ar­eas.

“This means no fire re­tar­dant or wa­ter can be dropped,” he con­tin­ued. “No tac­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion can be pro­vided to fire­fight­ers from above, and homes or other prop­erty could be put at risk if wild­fires grow larger.”

The two drone en­coun­ters this spring were the first for the For­est Ser­vice, Delleo said. In March, a For­est Ser­vice he­li­copter was drop­ping wa­ter on a fire just out­side Wilkes­boro when some­one no­ticed a drone fly­ing over­head. The copter had to move away un­til the drone op­er­a­tor was found. Later, the For­est Ser­vice learned that a sec­ond drone had been shoot­ing pho­tos of the fire only when it showed up on TV, Delleo said.

Delleo was in­volved in the sec­ond brush with a drone, over a fire in Pen­der County in April. Pen­der County EMS was fly­ing a drone on one side of the fire and didn’t know that Delleo’s plane was over­head.

"They didn’t know that we were com­ing, and we didn’t know that they were there,” he said. “I flew through the smoke across the fire from west to east, and when I came out of the smoke on the east side of the fire, they saw me.”

Delleo said the For­est Ser­vice has since got­ten word out to po­lice, sher­iffs and fire de­part­ments across the state not to launch a drone over a wild­fire with­out no­ti­fy­ing the agency first.

“We don’t want to stop these lo­cal agen­cies from us­ing these drones,” he said. “We just want to make sure that when they’re us­ing them, we’re not there.”

The Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion is­sued a sim­i­lar warn­ing to drone oper­a­tors last sum­mer, say­ing bluntly, “If you fly your drone any­where near a wild­fire, you could get some­one killed.” The agency cited sev­eral ex­am­ples from around the coun­try of aerial fire­fight­ing ef­forts be­ing paused or halted when drones ap­peared.

It’s not known how of­ten these kinds of in­ci­dents take place. In its an­nual safety re­port this spring, the In­ter­na­tional Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion said en­coun­ters be­tween drones and manned air­craft over­all are likely un­der-re­ported but are grow­ing.

“As the use of UAS is rapidly in­creas­ing, so too is the re­lated risk of as­so­ci­ated in­ci­dents and/or ac­ci­dents,” the re­port said, re­fer­ring to un­manned air­craft sys­tems. “One of the main con­cerns is the un­pre­dictabil­ity of the oper­a­tors and in­abil­ity to pin­point their lo­ca­tion.”

The N.C. For­est Ser­vice has 22 he­li­copters and planes, in­clud­ing two tankers, based in Kin­ston, San­ford and Hick­ory. Delleo said the agency’s pa­trol planes are in the air al­most daily dur­ing fire sea­sons, which run from mid-Fe­bru­ary through May and from about mid-Oc­to­ber through the end of Novem­ber, when hu­mid­ity lev­els are low.

The For­est Ser­vice has re­sponded to nearly 4,200 fires a year statewide on av­er­age since 2015.

TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE FILE PHO­TO­GRAPH

A he­li­copter bat­tle the Woolsey wild fire in the hills above Pep­per­dine Univer­sity in Mal­ibu, on Fri­day, Nov. 9, 2018.

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