The season of wildfires has set in. There have been reports of about 120 wildfires burning across 1.6 million acres in the US. These also include California’s Holy Fire and Mendocino Complex Fire which is being touted as the largest California inferno in recorded history. It is an appropriate time to inform the drone pilots that no flights are allowed over disaster hit areas.
A statement released by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says that firefighters across the nation have been forced to stop helicopter and airplane operations owing to the presence of drones in the surroundings. The statements goes onto articulate that in such crucial conditions, even a few minutes of flight delay can cause loss of precious lives or destruction of properties.
Firefighters generally avoid flying their aircraft over wildfires if they identify a drone in the surroundings due to the risk of a collision.
It is illegitimate to fly a drone over disaster hit areas.
A vast expanse of land over the burning areas including Rancho Santa Margarita, California is under Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) and issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to alerts pilots to avoid flying in areas hit by disasters. Areas under NOTAM restrict drone flights. Here is a list of active NOTAMs.
Pilots who violate these restrictions can be penalized up to $20,000 along with potential criminal prosecution.
You are uncertain if you can fly legally? You can get a live airspace map by virtue of a Know Before You Fly and get real time updates of whether a NOTAM has been instituted or temporary flight restrictions are in place. You need to simply enter the address of the area where you intend to fly the drone and the map will display if drone flight is legitimate or not.
The devastation caused by the wild infernos has been covered by media outlets such as The Guardian and the Los Angeles Times. This does not imply that all the imagery covering the wildfires is illegal. Accredited news agencies can have their machines flying over disaster hit areas even if a NOTAM is in place but before the aircraft is about to enter the region, a flight plan needs to be shared with the relevant FSS or Air Traffic Controller designated in the NOTAM.
The hobbyist drones especially need to be on their guard since using their drones to capture images of wildfires can be exceptionally dangerous.
Drones are being acquired by firefighters and other emergency responders. About 910 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency service agencies in the US now own drones which shows an increase of more than 82% as compared to the last year. Thermal imaging cameras in drones allow firefighters to see through smoke, to keep an eye at the personnel on the ground, spot smoldering areas and watch existing fire conditions.