Smoke from forest fire

As wildfires continue to rage over the United States, firefighters are dealing with unauthorized drones flying over and around affected areas. Many helicopters and planes are being grounded as a consequence of this.

More than one hundred wildfires are raging across millions of acres of the United States. The most important thing you should know, these emergency areas are automatically turned into no-fly zones for your drone. Do not fly your drone around any emergency where air traffic may be required to save a life.

What’s the issue flying over wildfires?

First and foremost, it’s illegal. But if we have to say more, the bottom line is that flying over active wildfires with your drone interferes with emergency services. Safety first is an important mantra for most all industries across the globe. It’s a good life approach too, but that’s not what we talk about here on Drone Rush. Keeping safety in mind, it matters not how little of a threat we perceive our drones to be to larger manned aircraft, our drone are aircraft, and no manned aircraft should be asked to fly in the same space as another craft.

Once a drone is up in the air near a wildfire, water bomber airplanes are diverted, and sometimes even made to land. The same goes for helicopters. These fire fighting and life saving aircraft are put to the side so that an illegally piloted drone may take some photos. Even if you have the best intentions and are trying to help, if you are not officially a part of the operation, you are getting in the way of the operation. 

Related reading: FAA’s No Drone Zone and other no-fly areas

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Drone legal and safety

What are the consequences for the drone pilot?

Fines may exceed $20,000 and you could see jail time.

If you are caught flying around or over a wildfire the consequences are not minor. Firstly, you may receive a fine, which may exceed $20,000. Other variables will be take into consideration, such as damages caused by your drone, or because of your drone, and the downtime of any helicopters and airplanes that could have been putting out the fire. Truth is, you could see a jail sentence.

If you come across someone flying a drone in or around a wildfire, you are strongly recommended to contact local law enforcement immediately. We do not recommend that you approach the pilot yourself, but if you do, please do keep in mind that they are a pilot with an aircraft to land. Do not interfere with the pilot’s ability to fly safely. Helping get the drone out of the sky as quickly as possible may help save more land from burning down, and can even mean helping to save lives.

What can you do to fly safely?

The FAA has created an easy-to-use smartphone app called B4UFLY. This app allows drone users to check for normal flight restriction as well as Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR), which are added when a wildfire or large event is taking place. We’ll give you a nice big button to get the FAA app, but you may find the same TFRs in other popular drone apps

Can I help the firefighters?

Maybe, but probably not right now. Now is probably not the time to be trying to setup a relationship with your local fire crews, they have their hands full. You can still attempt to contact them, be concise, don;t waste their time, just let them know you are available to help, what you can do, and how they can contact you. Do not push, they will either need you and your drone and will put you to work immediately, or they are already covered and don’t have time to think about you right now.

When lives are not in danger any more, contact your local fire, search & rescue, park service, law enforcement and similar to see about establishing a relationship. Trained and experienced pilots, as well as drones equipped with life-saving tools, are almost always a welcome addition to emergency service teams, but you need to have this relationship, and understand the intricacies of operating procedures, well before an emergency situation.

Do I need a drone license to help the fire fighters?

You should get your Part 107 certification before flying for emergency services. There is a bit of a grey area in terms of license requirements, however, as there are ways that government employees, acting on behalf of the government, as well as pilots acting under the direct authority of command for an emergency situation, to fly without Part 107 certification. If you are not one of these government employees already setup to fly, you’ll need that Part 107. If you are following our advice to contact the fire command to build a relationship long term, you’re going to need that certification before you approach them.

Do I need a drone license?

Wrap up

Do you think penalties for illegal or unauthorized flights should be more severe? Should jail time be standard? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below or head over to our social media accounts.