Drones Put Aerial Firefighters At High Risk During Southern California Fires


Washington, D.C., July 23, 2015…The American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has called for severe penalties against those who fly drones, for any purpose, over areas where helicopters and air tankers are engaged in firefighting.

Drones operating in close proximity of two recent Southern California fires—the Lake Fire and the North Fire–briefly grounded some aerial firefighting operations on Friday, July 17, due to the risk of mid-air collisions with the aircraft working to suppress those fires.  The result was loss of valuable response time, which may have led to increased destruction of property.  This included the 20 vehicles trapped on the Interstate 15 freeway during the North Fire, which burned 4,250 acres in San Bernardino County.  The same fire also destroyed seven homes, 16 outbuildings, and 44 vehicles in the nearby community of Baldy Mesa.

“The two fires presented a perfect illustration of how irresponsible use of drones in an active wildland fire environment can lead to preventable destruction of property.” said George Hill, AHSAFA’s Executive Director.  “We believe that criminal charges should be pressed–and maximum penalties imposed–against anyone who interferes with aerial firefighting operations in any fashion.  This includes the deployment of drones for hobby interests or news gathering.  At the very least, it is time for the federal government and local law enforcement agencies to recognize the danger which drones pose to firefighting aircraft and pilots in the event of a wild land fire and make some attempt to regulate their use.”

Among those directly impacted by the drones was a CH-47D helicopter, owned by CHI Aviation, and working the Lake Fire.

“When our pilot, along with an air attack pilot, could not locate a previously spotted drone very close to the (water) dip site, they elected to abort the mission and our helicopter returned to base,” said Larry Kelley, CHI Aviation’s Director of Fire Operations.  “That shut down operations on this fire for several hours until everyone was certain the drone was gone.”

Drones, Kelley explained, are often equipped with cameras for the sole purpose of capturing video images, which the owner could post on YouTube or sell to media outlets.  “The biggest danger drones present is a midair collision, he noted.  “If a drone were to impact the aircraft near an engine inlet, it could destroy the engine.  An aircraft carrying 16,000 pounds of water on a routine water bucket mission could possibly crash before the pilot could jettison the water and get the aircraft back into single engine performance limitations.”

Kelley added that if a drone struck a main rotor blade, the results would also be catastrophic.  “That is why the unauthorized penetration of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR’s)–or restricted airspace–by drones is something the FAA needs to really get a grip on.  My suggestion would be to place an extremely hefty fine on the violators.”

Other aerial firefighting operators expressed similar views.  Accord to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, “uncoordinated drone operations over a fire environment” present significant risks to aerial firefighters and their aircraft.

“The damage that even a small drone could cause in a midair collision could mean loss of the aircraft, and the lives of the aircrew, depending on where the aircraft is hit,” he stressed.  “Due to the safety concerns of uncoordinated drones, fire agencies will have to take necessary precautions, which could significantly impact the timeliness of aerial resources deployment on the fire.”  Neptune Aviation had a BAe 146, and a P2V Neptune tanker on the North Fire, but both aircraft went on duty after the drone issue was resolved.

Dan Sweet, Public Relations Manager for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon believes that drone operators “are acting carelessly and selfishly,” putting their interests above that of the public.  “No video or photo is worth the lives of a flight crew, the lives of firefighters on the ground, or additional property damaged because aircraft are forced to stop attacking the fire,” he remarked.

Along this line, Drew Njirich, owner of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, points out that there is “no liability or risk to drone operators,” and, currently, “no way to come back to them,” if they cause an accident.  “You can buy (drones) on Amazon, and they are not registered to any person or authority,” he explained.  “Until drone operators have a sense of responsibility, it’s only a matter of time before they kill someone.”

CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before Congress, the US Forest Service, and other agencies tasked with responsibility for federal wild land and natural resources protection.

Rapid Response is Key as California Fire Season Explodes

In response to a proliferation of large fires throughout the far western US, Neptune Aviation Services has activated three BAe 146 air tankers, with just four day’s’ notice from the US Forest Service (USFS) under Call When Needed (CWN) agreements.  The tanker activations took place with the conclusion of maintenance carding inspections of the aircraft by the USFS, following the agency’s exercising of the agreements with Neptune on June 18.

“Two of the tankers were immediately deployed to Twin Falls, Idaho, and Redmond, Oregon, due to fire conditions in those areas,” said Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of the Missoula, Montana-based company.  “The third has joined one of our P2Vs in Reno, Nevada, from which they are working on the Washington Fire.  That fire has destroyed more than 16,000 acres, to date, near Lake Tahoe.”

Snyder added that a fourth Neptune-operated BAe 146 could be activated within days.  “Assuming that all four go on duty this week, Neptune Aviation will have 11 aircraft actively engaged on fires.”  That, he reported, would include a BAe 146 flying under an exclusive use contract in Alaska, as well as three P2Vs currently working the Lake Fire in Southern California, out of a USFS tanker base in San Bernardino, and also under exclusive use contracts.

The Lake Fire is, in fact, the largest inferno of the 2015 California fire season, so far, as it continues to burn through the San Bernardino National Forest, just east of Los Angeles.  The fire, which broke out on June 17, has already scorched nearly 19,000 acres.

“After a slow start to the fire season, we are suddenly seeing an explosion of fires throughout California,” Snyder observed.

As fires in the western United States have proliferated, Rogers Helicopters of Fresno, California, has mobilized two Bell 212s for water dropping and fire fighter transport. “One helicopter is working on the Lake Fire out of Big Bear, while another has been deployed to Minden, Nevada,” said Robin Rogers, the company’s Vice President.  He added that two of its Aero Commander fixed wing twin turboprops, used in air traffic command and control missions, have also been activated.  One is operating out of Grass Valley, northeast of Sacramento, California, and another is working from the company’s Fresno base, on the Corrine Fire in Madera County, California.

“Unfortunately, the dire predictions regarding the 2015 fire season are coming true.  Ongoing drought conditions are continuing to provide the greatest fire danger levels throughout the far western states, especially California,” said George Hill, executive director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) in Washington, D.C.  “Privately operated aerial tanker and helicopter companies provide the rapid response needed to meet the challenge of what is already becoming a season of multiple large fires. Contractual vehicles such as the CWN agreements allow the USFS to rapidly activate and employ all of the resources available.”

Neptune Aviation Services and Rogers Helicopters are members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the private aerial firefighting companies before Congress, the US Forest Service, and other agencies with responsibility for wild land management.