Calfire warns about drones forcing shutdown of fire air support

ORINDA, Calif. (KTVU) -- With fire season heating up, Calfire is increasingly concerned about not only fire danger, but an entirely different danger. This one is not on the ground, but rather coming from above.

Fire officials are concerned about drones and the people who fly them into the airspace above and around wildfires. They can bring the air attack on a fire to a screeching halt, because they can potentially create a serious hazard for firefighting aircraft.

Along Highway 4 in Concord, five small fires broke out next to the roadway.

"It could have been someone dragging a chain, something like that down the freeway, brakes, or exhaust," said Calfire Battalion Chief Mike Jarske.

He says firefighters knocked down the fires quickly enough that air support was called off. But on big fires, there's nothing like help from above.

"Oh, they're invaluable to us. They can drop retardant, and that doesn't put out the fire, but it can hold it until our ground resources can get in there and actually control it," Jarske explained.

That's why drones flown by people who want to shoot fire video are becoming so problematic. On fires where air tankers and helicopters are in flight, a drone in the air can cause serious trouble for the airborne firefighters.

"If there's a drone in there, it can cause a midair collision, it can cause damage to the aircraft, which would cause it to be grounded," said Jarske. "Or worse, it could cause a mid-air collision that could cause that air tanker, that aircraft to crash."

On big fires, the FAA will order a Temporary Flight Restriction or TFR, keeping other aircraft out of the area, and any pilot that strays too close will be ordered out.

"So, drones of course, there's no communication there, it means we have to shut down our aerial firefighting efforts," said Jarske. "That means that fire is going to get bigger, it's a bigger threat to life and property, it's a threat to our fire pilots, it's just not good."

This has become such a serious issue that this week Calfire will be shooting a public service announcement reminding everyone to keep their drones on the ground during wildfires.