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Firefighters: Airspace Is Closed In Emergencies Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

24 July 2015

Summer fires are always a problem in the western U.S. and with the California drought, fire season has started ominously. But the fight has been made more difficult this year by private drones occupying the closed airspace above the fires.

And firefighters and public agencies want drone pilots to know: the airspace is closed in an emergency. In June, for example, the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada posted the video above to remind enthusiasts to "be safe, be smart, stay away."

The problem, as NPR's All Things Considered highlighted today, is that drones can disable larger aircraft by getting sucked into helicopter propellers or airplane engines. With visibility limited by smoke to begin with, the pilots don't need any further distractions to their safety or their mission.

In the case of last month's Lake Fire in San Bernardino National Forest, three air tankers were grounded for a day when a drone was spotted in the area, letting the fire spread unchecked.

Despite the obvious danger, drones have already invaded the closed airspace above fires six times this summer. In addition to the public education effort already under way to combat the practice, more formal measures are being crafted.

Rep. Adman Schiff (D-Calif.) has asked the FAA, which is finalizing regulations for commercial and hobbyist drones, to include rules concerning emergency first responders.

And the Los Angeles Times reports "two California politicians -- Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) and state Sen. Ted Gaines (R-El Dorado) -- on Monday introduced legislation that would give firefighters and other first responders immunity for damaging any drone intruding into such areas during a fire or other emergency."

Meanwhile, when U.S. Forest Service officials discover a drone in the airspace above forest fires, they will continue to ground fire-fighting aircraft.

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