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Drones causing air support to be grounded during wildfires

SEDALIA, Colo. -- Fire departments statewide are pleading with the public to follow the rules when it comes to drones around active wildfires.

Flying high above the ground, drones give a bird’s-eye view of the world. From cityscapes to places off-limits to the public, they can soar into fires like never before.

“We certainly see the benefit in fact South Metro is seeing a few people to get properly trained,” South Metro Fire Rescue spokesman Eric Hurst said.

However, sometimes drones can also be a hazard for fire crews.

On Saturday, South Metro was one of four agencies responding to a grass fire in Sedalia. The 18-acre fire required air support but couldn’t utilize it as planned.

“During [Saturday’s] incident, one of our fire crews observed a drone flying around the scene, so that triggers a lot of concerns for us,” Hurst said.

A drone in the immediate area of a wildfire makes conditions too unsafe for airplanes. If the two collide, it could cause the plane to crash.

“The pilots don’t want to be up in the air when they can’t communicate with another aircraft that’s flying next to them,” Hurst said.

A similar situation happened at the Lightner Creek Fire in Durango last week.

Planes carrying fire retardant were forced to drop their loads early and leave the area because of an unauthorized drone in the flight path.

“We don’t want any kind of an accident to happen so at that point, aircraft is going to have to be grounded until we can find out who’s operating the drone and we can get them to stop,” Hurst said.

When air support is grounded, that is time wasted in a situation where every second is critical.

“When we reach that level of calling air support, it’s a serious incident and we want to be able to use those air craft to the fullest extent that we can,” he said.

Drone pilots are required to know the rules before taking flight. The general rule is they can’t be flown within five miles of an airport or landing zone.

They also can’t be flown in other areas under temporary flight restrictions.

If air support will be needed, fire departments could secure a temporary flight restriction from the Federal Aviation Administration for the airspace surrounding an active fire.

If the airspace is not restricted, drones can legally fly in the area.

However, according to South Metro, sometimes in emergency situations air support is called in at the last minute. That is why officials are asking drone pilots to use common-sense courtesy around fire emergencies.

“Any emergency scene that we’re responding to has the potential of receiving air support so that five miles is kind of what the same standard would be,” Hurst said.

It is also a good idea to ask the responding police and fire agencies if it is OK to fly a drone over an emergency scene.

Sometimes medical helicopters will arrive unannounced and need to be present in the area.