Skip to navigationSkip to content
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file
Even a small drone could interfere with a low-flying fire fighting plane.

Firefighters are getting increasingly frustrated with drones

Zoë Schlanger
By Zoë Schlanger

Environment reporter

From our Obsession

Machines with Brains

AI is upending companies, industries, and humanity.

It’s wildfire season in the US, and fire departments are issuing pleas to hobbyists to stop flying their drones anywhere near the blazes. When a drone is in the sky, firefighting planes and helicopters are grounded or kept away, because a collision could be disastrous. More than a dozen hobby drones—sent up by their owners in the hope of capturing spectacular video—have already caused problems at fire sites this year.

“Very simply put: If you fly, we cannot fly,” Tony Mecham, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s San Diego unit told a local newspaper.

Firefighting operations have been disrupted four times in four days at the site of the ongoing Lightner Creek wildfire in Colorado, and twice in two weeks at a fire in Prescott Valley, Arizona. Arizona prosecutors last week filed two felony criminal charges against a man accused of endangering air and ground firefighting crews by flying a drone over an active wildfire in Prescott National Forest.

By July 7, the number of US firefighting operations that were disturbed by drones so far this year totaled 17, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, part of the US Bureau of Land Management.

The drone problem has plagued fire departments for the last few years; In 2016, during Utah’s massive Saddle fire, a drone prevented firefighting planes from taking off—if the planes had been able to attack the fire from above, people would not have needed to be evacuated, according to Utah governor Gary Herbert.

Officials in 2015 similarly blamed hobbyist drones for blocking their efforts to battle a California wildfire.

Subscribe to the Daily Brief, our morning email with news and insights you need to understand our changing world.