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Drone prompts diversion of wildfire surveillance plane

"Drones and emergency operations don't mix," FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said


By Kelly P. Kissel
Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Forestry officials diverted a surveillance plane from its assigned path because a drone hovered above a northern Arkansas wildfire, prompting them to caution people that airborne efforts to take unique photographs endanger pilots and those working below.

State Forester Joe Fox said Wednesday that he doesn't believe a drone operator deliberately interfered with firefighting efforts in Tuesday's incident, but he is worried that the danger will increase as more hobbyists obtain aircraft.

State Forester Joe Fox said he doesn't believe a drone operator deliberately interfered with firefighting efforts. (Photo/Flickr)
State Forester Joe Fox said he doesn't believe a drone operator deliberately interfered with firefighting efforts. (Photo/Flickr)

"When there's a fire, people drive out and want to watch it. It's just a natural curiosity," Fox said. "Drones are new and people are trying to figure out what they'll do."

A monthslong drought in Arkansas and Oklahoma has made the landscape ripe for wildfires. More than 270 wildfires have occurred in Arkansas since the start of November, and for the year the state has had nearly 40 square miles burn. In Oklahoma, a single fire in March burned 51 square miles.

Firefighters are known to use drones, too, so they can determine where to move resources while coordinating with pilots to ensure the portable aircraft are out of the sky before larger aircraft arrive.

Mark Goeller, Oklahoma's state fire management chief, said the agency has often found out afterward that a drone was above a wildfire. He said agency officials "maybe see it posted on Facebook or someone tells us."

After a fire chief in Sharp County said Tuesday that a privately owned drone was above a wildfire, the state Forestry Commission diverted a surveillance flight elsewhere to ensure its safety, commission spokeswoman Adriane Barnes said. The state has 13 single-engine planes based at Malvern that are used to detect wildfires in a system that formerly used foresters perched atop fire towers.

"A plane will leave at 10 a.m. and start a pre-routed flight through an area, radioing back to the ground where they see signs of smoke," Barnes said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday it works with forestry agencies to warn people about the danger.

"Drones and emergency operations don't mix," FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford of Fort Worth, Texas, wrote in an email.

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