'If you fly, we can't!' Firefighters warn drone hobbyists

After the one moment it took for authorities to spot a drone flying over the wildfire on Oct. 31, the flames of the Maria Fire burned at the doorstep of an unincorporated town outside of Santa Paula, California, unhindered from the air for 30 to 45 minutes. In that time, the firefighters on the ground were without crucial support.

"Air resources do a huge benefit to firefighters because flames can get too big and too hot. You can't get in there, whereas our air resources can get in there and help cool it down for us to get in. So they're a tremendous support in domestic fires," Ventura County Fire Department Public Information Officer Captain Bryan McGrath said.

The helicopters or planes brought in as air resources provide large amounts of water or flame retardant, often used to get to inaccessible areas quickly or even ahead of the fire. From the air, they are able to reach areas and fight fires where it would otherwise be dangerous for ground efforts. These valuable resources can be grounded by just a sighting of a drone.

An air tanker drops retardant as the Maria Fire approaches Santa Paula, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. According to Ventura County Fire Department, the blaze has scorched more than 8,000 acres and destroyed at least two structures. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

"When a drone gets in the air, we have to ground our air resources because of a multitude of problems," McGrath said. "When a drone is flying, the helicopter pilot can't see it. So now if that drone hits that helicopter, the beset scenario is the helicopter lands and they do a mechanical check of it."

The worst case scenario, McGarth said, is the drone and the helicopter or plane crash into each other, seriously injuring someone or worse.

In 2015, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection pilot had a near miss with a four-rotor drone, which had come as close as 10 feet from the windshield of his helicopter. With seven firefighters aboard with him, he made a hard left about 500 feet above the ground.

"If that drone came through my windshield, I have no idea what could have happened," Jason Thrasher told the Associated Press in a phone interview. "If that drone hits my tail rotor, for sure it's going to be catastrophic."

FILE - This public service announcement provided by the U.S. Forest Service shows a poster warning people not to fly drones near wildfires. The U.S. Department of the Interior says it's working with drone makers and mapping companies to create a system allowing smartphones to quickly update no-fly zones at wildfires. (U.S. Forest Service via AP, File)

"We take it very seriously when one of the drones is in the air. We don't fly. It's too dangerous," McGrath said. "It's not worth the pilot's life or the firefighters' lives on the ground to fly around any kind of drone."

The Maria Fire started on Thursday, Oct. 31, just before 9 p.m. PDT. That night, there were two drone sightings, resulting in the grounding of air support, according to McGrath.

The air resources during the start of the Maria Fire had been called to an unincorporated town in a portion of Santa Paula. After the sighting, the pilots were called and grounded, waiting for the all clear. The firefighters on the ground were faced with holding the fire back from the town and homes without the crucial support they needed. As the minutes drudged on, the fire continued to burn.

"The helicopters had to land from 30 to 45 minutes, so that's 30 to 45 minutes of no water being dropped or overhead viewing of the fire, which is crucial in firefighters being able to know where the fire is and what it's doing," McGrath said.

Luckily, there was no structural damage in that time around the area.

The Ventura County Fire Department PIO account had two posts on its page on prohibiting drones in fire zones after the start of the Maria Fire.

"Even a tiny drone can cause a serious or fatal accident if it collides with firefighting aircraft. In most situations, if drones are spotted near a fire, firefighting aircraft must land for safety concerns and firefighters cannot do their job. If you fly, we can't!" one post says.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been at least 20 public drone incursions in 2019, shutting down aerial firefighting efforts at least nine times across six states. Before the Maria Fire, three of those times had been in California.

According to U.S. law, it's prohibited to resist or interfere with the "efforts of firefighter(s) to extinguish a fire."

"All fires are no drone zones - flying a hobbyist drone over a fire puts everyone at risk and hinders firefighting suppression efforts," according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Management. "If you fly - we must ground all aircraft, including the large air tankers due to the dangerous conditions drones pose in unauthorized airspace."