BLM says unlawful UAS flights put firefighters at risk

By Patrick C. Miller | September 19, 2014

Unauthorized UAS operations in or near wildfires threatens the safety of firefighters in the air and on the ground, hampering their ability to control fires, according to wildfire managers with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Carson City (Nevada) District.

The federal agency said that this year there have been at least four instances of UAS being flown within or near a wildfire without appropriate authorization, one recently in northern California. The BLM said individuals and organizations should not fly UAS over wildfires without permission from fire managers.

“We understand the interest of UAS pilots in obtaining video and other data by flying near wildfires,” said Shane McDonald, BLM fire management officer.  “It would be an awful tragedy if a UAS pilot were to cause an accident that resulted in serious injuries or deaths of firefighters.”

Anyone determined to have interfered with wildfire suppression efforts may be subject to civil penalties and potentially criminal prosecution, the agency said.

Temporary flight restrictions (TFR) are put in place during wildfires, requiring manned or unmanned aircraft—other than those engaged in fire suppression operations—to obtain permission from fire managers to enter the specified airspace. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of the Interior and other wildland fire management agencies consider UAS—including those used by hobbyists and recreationists—as aircraft subject to the restrictions.

The BLM stressed that unauthorized UAS flights could cause serious injury or death to firefighters on the ground. They could also have midair collisions with air tankers, helicopters and other aircraft engaged in wildfire suppression missions.   

Unauthorized UAS flights in or near wildfires could lead fire managers to suspend aerial wildfire suppression efforts until the aircraft has permanently left the TFR airspace, the agency noted. This could decrease the effectiveness of wildfire suppression operations, allowing wildfires to grow larger, and in some cases, unduly threaten lives and property.

UAS operations by individuals and organizations must be authorized by the FAA or comply with the Special Rule for Model Aircraft (Section 336 of P.L. 112-95). Information is available online at www.faa.gov/uas.