Through California and the west, where wildfires often burn at an alarming rate, the problem of unmanned hobby drones interfering with firefighting aircraft has become increasingly serious, officials say.
Twice this year in San Diego County and at least two other times elsewhere in the state, air tankers or helicopters have been grounded during fire fights after drones were spotted flying over the blazes — posing a grave risk to aircraft and personnel in the area.
Nationwide, the number of so-called “drone intrusions” this year was 17 as of Friday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, part of the US Bureau of Land Management.
Such incidents could have tragic consequences, authorities say.
Cal Fire Battlaion Chief Burke Kremensky, who heads the Ramona Air Attack base, said tankers and helicopters can help slow the advance of a fire, which is crucial when people are trying to evacuate.
“If there’s a drone flying and we have to cease operations, that’s putting a life at risk,” he said.
A collision between a drone and an aircraft could also be disastrous.
“If that drone strikes a propeller or strikes one of the rotors on a helicopter it could cause … that aircraft to crash,” Kremensky added. “The props are very lightweight and not designed to take an impact from a five pound object floating in the air.”
He said as tankers and helicopters fly low near a fire front preparing to dump water or fire retardant to slow the advance of flames, they can be traveling at about 100 miles an hour.
“It could actually break through the windscreen or windshield and come into the…
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