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US Forest Service Pleads: Keep Drones Away From Wildfires

A recent public service announcement launched by Cal Fire begs the public to keep hobby drones away from active wildfires, after unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) interfered with containment efforts in the West on at least 25 occasions in 2015.

"If you fly, we can't," the PSA pleads, referring to the need for firefighters to ground aircraft when hobby drones are spotted in the area.

"It's a new complexity, essentially kind of a new threat for us, in terms of our ability to fight these fires with our aircraft," Tom Harbour, U.S. Forest Service national director of Fire and Aviation Management told AccuWeather.

Burned-out vehicles stand in view of a house still standing following a wildfire several days earlier, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, in Middletown, California. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Though hobby drones have been widely used for some time, "[the problem] really manifested itself this year," Harbour said.

In early July, as firefighters began a swift attack on the North Fire in San Bernardino, California, five hobby drones were seen flying in the fire area, forcing officials to ground all responding aircraft for 20 minutes.

Soon after, the fire boundary advanced toward nearby Interstate 15, forcing motorists to flee on foot as 20 vehicles became engulfed in flames.

The North Fire is one of 25 documented incidences this year where hobby drones forced the temporary suspension of wildfire containment efforts.

"And certainly there are probably many more that are undocumented," Harbour said.

In the same month, San Bernardino County supervisors unanimously agreed to over $75,000 in rewards for help in catching drone operators who interfered with three major California wildfires.

According to the LA Times, officials say the lost time while crews were grounded allowed fires to spread, resulting in devastating property losses.

Air tankers and helicopters involved in wildfire fighting typically fly at very low altitudes - as low as only 400 feet off the ground - roughly the same altitude as UAVs flown by the public.

A collision between a drone and an air tanker could injure or kill pilots or ground crews, Harbour said.

To date, wildfires in 2015 have charred over 11,245,000 acres of land, nearly 6 million acres more than the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

But despite the above-average acreage, 2015 has produced fewer wildfires overall - down roughly 10,000 fires from the average between 2005 and 2014.

Though officials are lobbying to pass legislation that would allow wildfire containment crews to take down drones over wildfires and levy fines against those who are caught interfering, Harbour thinks it's a matter of getting the word out, attributing the problem to people who "just don't know any better."

"We're really hopeful that we can cut way, way back on these incidences just by having people understand the danger that one of these things causes in our airspace," he said.

"Our firefighters on the ground depend on our firefighters in the air. We depend on having both arms, so to speak, to be able to deal with these things. So, the proverbial metaphor 'one arm tied behind your back' just doesn't work on these very serious fires."