Drone grounds firefighting aircraft in Grants Pass

Grants Pass, Ore. – A drone spotted above a fire burning along Interstate 5 ended up grounding air operations in the area.

The Oregon Department of Forestry said a powerline-related fire sparked in Grants Pass around 4:10 on July 23.

Ground crews responded to the area within minutes and began to work on containing the fire.

An ODF helicopter was dispatched to the area to assist with the initial attack.

The helicopter pilot did an initial scan of the area to ensure the fire didn’t spread before heading back to the fire with a water bucket.

ODF said a crew member on the ground spotted a drone hovering over the active fire scene before the helicopter arrived back at the scene.

The pilot was contacted and left the area to avoid the drone.

While the fire was knocked down at half-an-acre, ODF said every firefighter on the ground and air faced additional risk due to the hobby drone.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident, as it is prohibited by the FAA for drones to fly over active fire incidents.

“It jeopardizes the safety of our pilots, firefighters and the public. We are asking that people help spread this message so a drone interfering with firefighting operations does not happen again,” said ODF Southwest District Forester, Dave Larson.

According to ODF, this is the first time air operations have been grounded due to drone activity in the department’s Southwest Oregon District.

“It is important to note that just because a helicopter is not visible in the sky, or flames are no longer noticeable on the ground, does not mean that fire scene is no longer ‘active,’” ODF wrote in a statement. “Aircraft are often orbiting a wildfire long after flames are knocked down. In addition, resources on the ground and in the air often revisit fire scenes in order to ensure there is no heat radiating from the ground that could potentially spark a new fire. As long as there are boots on the ground, the fire scene remains active.”

Drone operators who fly over active fire incidents could be subject a civil fine of up to $27,500 and possible criminal prosecution.

ODF wrote, “Remember, if you fly, we can’t.”

For more information about drone regulations, visit http://www.knowbeforeyoufly.org.

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