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Hobby Drones Persistently Interfering At Wildfires Despite Repeated Warnings

The Federal Aviation Administration emailed all 500,000 drone owners in its registry this week to remind them to stay away from wildfires. Close calls between hobby drones and firefighting aircraft persist across the West despite repeated warnings.

National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said she understands the temptation to fly a drone near a blazing wildfire.

"It's obviously very attractive, interesting footage,” she said. “We just believe that a lot of folks aren't aware of the risk -- the safety risks -- that they're creating."

Jones said a drone sighting results in firefighting aircraft being grounded until the airspace is clear. The NIFC in Boise has already documented rogue drone incursions at 12 Western wildfires this year, and it's still early in fire season.

"We've been doing everything we can think of to try to get the word out through a lot of different channels,” Jones said.

Jones said unauthorized drones have been spotted this year at wildfires in California, Montana, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Alaska and Minnesota resulting in aerial operations being temporarily shut down on at least six occasions. The most recent incidents occurred within the past week at the Erskine Fire near Fresno and the Reservoir Fire near San Bernardino, California.

"There is a very high potential for a mid-air collision that could result in a fatal or serious accident to firefighters in the air or on the ground," Jones said in an interview on Friday.

NIFC learned of approximately 20 unauthorized drone incursions during last year's fire season when there were fewer of the small, remote-controlled quadcopters and airplanes in hobbyist hands. The FAA can levy steep penalties for interfering at a wildfire. But most of the time the foolhardy drone pilots vanish before they can be located and identified.

"Shutting down firefighting operations could cause wildfires to become larger and can threaten lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources," said the mass email sent by the FAA to people who have registered their recreational drones with the agency -- as is now required.

The email concluded, ”The bottom line is, 'If You Fly, We Can’t.”

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.