An air tanker drops retardant over the Corner Creek fire in Central Oregon, July 11, 2015.

An air tanker drops retardant over the Corner Creek fire in Central Oregon, July 11, 2015.

Jeff Priest/BLM

This year is poised to be a difficult firefighting season in the Pacific Northwest. Most parts of Oregon and Washington experienced the warmest January to June since record keeping began in 1890, and the drought that has devastated California is steadily advancing north.

Making the season even more tense, firefighters are reporting an increasing number of near misses with unmanned drones, many of which appear to be sent by hobbyists or photographers trying to document fires.

“You have to think about the consequences,” says Jim Whittington, an information officer with the Forest Service. “Is a cool video worth a house, or a life, or a million dollar aircraft?”

In California, safety concerns after a drone appeared grounded 20 aircraft fighting the Lake Fire on June 24.

In Eastern Washington, an air tanker pilot fighting the Douglas County Complex fire July 11 noticed a drone in restricted airspace at the end of a shift, and tracked the drone as it landed and returned to a vehicle.


Hobbyists can legally fly drones below 400 feet, but wildfires often trigger temporary flight restrictions, which bar non-essential aircraft including drones. The Federal Aviation Administration lists restrictions, and you can track wildfires on Inciweb

Whittington says regardless of whether a flight restriction is officially in place, drone operators should avoid sending their craft over fires, due to the risk they will distract pilots, collide with aircraft or harm firefighters on the ground.

Most drones piloted by amateurs do not carry any kind of transponder system to broadcast their location and are too small to appear on radar, according to Whittington. In addition, the aircraft attacking fires tend to fly low, like the drones. Tankers ladden with fire retardant travel slowly and can’t easily maneuver to avoid a collision.

“It’s just unacceptable. If you fly, we can’t,” says Julie Stewart, the national airspace program manager for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. “These little drones are almost impossible to see until it’s too late. We’re dealing with smoke, we’re dealing with fatigue. It’s absolutely terrifying.”

A list Stewart has compiled for the FAA details eight incidents of unmanned aircraft appearing over wildfires in 2015 to date in California, Colorado, Minnesota, Utah and Washington.

Stewart says the day after the drone appeared over the Douglas County Complex fire in Washington, a production company posted video of the fire online, but she doubts she can conclusively prove the company was operating in closed airspace.  Firefighters didn’t get a license plate from the vehicle they observed driving away from the fire with the drone. 

“While people are eager to obtain footage, it is extremely dangerous to combine unmanned aircraft operations with our firefighting,” she says.