Aerial firefighting operations were grounded for several hours on Sunday at three of Utah’s wildfire locations due to a drone sighting. Drones have become such a problem in Utah that the Utah Legislature has passed a bill prohibiting unmanned aerial vehicles in active wildfire areas.
Drones have been slowly gaining popularity in Utah. According to a Utah Senate press release, there are at least 700,000 registered drones in the state. But the growing popularity of drones has increased concern during wildfire season.
On Sunday, operations were halted at the Aspen and Pine Canyon fires nears Cedar City and the Saddle Fire in Washington County because the drones posed a threat to aerial firefighting vehicles.
"On a wildfire, those aircrafts are flying anywhere from thousands of feet up all the way down to right above the ground level,” said Jason Curry, the public information officer at the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “With vulnerable rotor systems and helicopters, it’s uncomfortable when you know there might be something flying around you that you can’t see and you don’t know when or where it’s coming from."
Curry said those who fly drones around wildfires to take pictures could potentially crash aerial vehicles and put firefighting crews in danger.
“It’s not only frustrating, but it’s really kind of unfortunate,” Curry said. “It’s kind of a slap in the face for firefighters to have to face that reality. People are willing to put their lives at risk for the sake of a snapshot.”
This month, a bill has gone into effect that makes flying drones in prohibited areas a class B misdemeanor, up to a second degree felony if a drone causes an aerial crash. Curry said prohibited areas should be easy for drone operators to identify.
“Once you see smoke and flames on the wild land, that’s a wildfire,” Curry said. “It’s reported into our dispatch system, it’s available online. All drone operators should be able to very simply find out that the area is closed to any aircraft.”
Officials are encouraging drone users to educate themselves on the restrictions of drone use. For more information about the areas where drone flight is prohibited, go to knowbeforeyoufly.org.