Drones can help, hinder fighting wildfires

Alex Zorn

Military and UAS Integration Specialist for the Center of Excellence Garrett Seddon stands with drone that he hopes one day may be used in wildfires.
Provided |

As wildfire season begins to quiet on the Western Slope, engineers and technicians over at the aerial firefighting center at the Rifle Garfield County Airport continue to look at ways drones can be used to aid firefighters.

While some states are already using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), Center of Excellence UAS Integration Specialist Garrett Seddon said it will take some time before drones begin to be used in live wildfires.

“I envision fire departments taking UAS out on calls with them in the next couple of years,” he explained. “It’s hard to put a timetable on it because it is an always emerging technology. We know its capabilities and potential. It will take case studies to prove that it can do what it is supposed to do.”

One way Seddon envisions using drones is during lightning storms. He said drones may be used to survey the area for smoke and pinpoint where exactly lightning hits.

Drones can also provide situational awareness to make sure fire is doing what it is expected to do, though Seddon said there are no use cases yet.

Large UAS, drones more than 55 pounds, have been used to deliver cargo for the military, which Seddon believes has practical applications for fire suppression. He envisions several units being used to fly and drop water around the perimeter of the fire, though that also has not had real-world application to date.

Drones remain an emerging technology in the public safety sector. It will just take time for not only policy to adjust, but for the public to adjust, as well.

Just last year, there were more than 40 documented instances of unauthorized drone flights over or near wildfires in 12 states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Utah, Washington and Wyoming) that resulted in aerial firefighting operations being temporarily shut down more than 20 times.

So far this year, there have been 17 such instances, two of which came from Colorado. On June 28, firefighting air traffic had to be shut down during the Lightner Creek Fire in Durango because of a drone incursion and again on July 1, according to Jessica Gardetto with the National Interagency Fire Center.

If an unauthorized drone is detected flying over or near a wildfire, fire managers may have to ground all air traffic until they can confirm that the drone has left the area. This can cause wildfires to become larger and more costly and to unduly threaten lives, property and valuable natural and cultural resources, according to the center’s press release.

“Most members of the public would never dream of standing in front of a fire engine to stop it from getting to a wildfire, but that’s essentially what they’re doing to aerial firefighting aircraft when they fly a drone over or near a wildfire,” said Dan Buckley, chair of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Since aerial firefighting aircrafts fly at such low altitudes, they fly in the same airspace as drones, creating the potential for midair collisions.

Individuals who are determined to have interfered with wildfire suppression efforts may be subject to civil penalties of up to $20,000 and potentially criminal prosecution. At least one person has been arrested this year in connection with flying an unauthorized drone over the Goodwin Fire in Arizona.

The Interior Department, in partnership with other federal, state and local agencies, has developed a wildfire location data-sharing program called “Current Wildland Fires” to inform drone pilots of areas to avoid flying over or near. Additional information is available at

To keep drone pilots aware of flight restrictions, the FAA has developed an easy-to-use smartphone app called B4UFLY. The app helps drone pilots determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect at the location where they want to fly. B4UFLY is available for free download in the App Store for iOS and Google Play store for Android.

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