Today we praise Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, for taking needed, effective action on a problem we face.
Two weeks ago, the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act overwhelmingly passed the U.S. Senate on a 93-to-6 vote. It contained a provision from Gardner making it a felony to fly an unauthorized drone over a wildfire.
In recent years, unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones – and their remote operators – have gained notoriety for interfering with firefighting. At the same time, Coloradans have watched swaths of forest and range lands succumb to fires that threaten homes and businesses.
The new law is necessary, unfortunately, because common-sense appeals to amateur drone operators to avoid areas where fixed-wing and helicopter firefighting aircraft are operating have not sufficed. The threat of felony prosecution and harsher penalties should prove a more effective deterrent.
The combination of small, sophisticated remote-control aircraft and the self-aggrandizing power of videos shared on the internet has proven to be an intoxicating combination for operators willing to bend the FAA rules of safe drone operation. These rules contain clear admonishments to “remain well clear of and not interfere with manned aircraft operations,” and to avoid “adverse weather conditions such as in high winds or reduced visibility,” conditions prevalent near wildfires.
The danger is real, and fire managers are forced to ground spotter and tanker aircraft when unauthorized drones appear. Even a small, lightweight drone can cause extensive damage if ingested into an aircraft engine, and larger drones with specialized camera equipment can be surprisingly heavy, capable of destroying an aircraft’s wing or its windscreen. The specter of a drone collision causing a firefighting aircraft to crash is not something restricted to Hollywood special-effects studios.
During the 2017 Lightner Creek Fire, firefighting efforts by aircraft were suspended four times because of drone interference. In at least one case, a loaded tanker had to drop its fire retardant away from the fire, effectively wasting the retardant, the plane’s fuel and its mission.
Because drone interference often occurs in the early stages of a blaze, it can limit effective response time, giving a small blaze time to bloom out of control. “Losing an hour in firefighting isn’t just a matter of making up for lost time,” said Steve Hall, a communications director with the Bureau of Land Management, in an article for Popular Science. “A fire is a dynamic event, constantly shifting and growing. Lost time might mean the perfect moment for dousing the flames is lost.”
New technology is giving fire managers the capability to jam drones and create “no fly zones” near wildfire operations. Still, we are glad for Gardner’s provision, and his straight logic in writing it.
“I just realized what a significant risk we had to human life and the significant interference we had with the ability to fight a fire appropriately,” he said. “And it’s all based on just a bunch of morons deciding that they are more important than the firefighters.”
Enough said – and well, Senator.