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Illegal drone flights hamper response to Ariz. wildfire

Officials said unauthorized drones flying in restricted air space have forced them to ground their aircraft multiple times


Carol Ann Alaimo
The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

PIMA COUNTY, Ariz. — A wildfire that began near Pusch Ridge as a 200-acre blaze has grown more than 10 times in size and could send smoke drifting into Tucson as wind directions change, fire officials said Monday.

Pima County’s environmental department said the impact may be felt most keenly in north Tucson, Oro Valley and Catalina, and is urging children, older adults and those with respiratory issues to avoid the outdoors when smoke is in the air.

Meanwhile, fire officials said Monday, their efforts have been hampered by repeated interference from drones that forced firefighters to pause their work.

The Bighorn Fire, which began June 5, covered more than 2,500 acres as of Monday evening, the news release said.

The lightning-started blaze, visible from much of Tucson and surrounding areas, is about 10% contained and additional resources have been added to the firefighting team, said Heidi Schewel, spokeswoman for the Coronado National Forest.

The latest drone incursion occurred around 2 p.m. Monday over the fire’s southern edge, she said.

“Our firefighting aircraft communicate with each other and with forces on the ground. When an aircraft such as a drone enters restricted air space we have no way of communicating with the pilots so we must ground our aircraft,” she explained.

Fire crews have lost “precious time” as a result, and drone interference is the main reason the fire is still growing and is only minimally contained at this point, officials said

At last report, the Bighorn Fire was moving northeast toward Table Mountain and had reached the upper elevations of Pima Canyon, the news release said. The number of personnel assigned to fight the fire has more than doubled, from 80 initially to more than 175 as of Monday. They include five hotshot crews, 12 engines, nine water tenders and four helicopters equipped to drop water or fire retardant.

The Tortolita Fire near the Tortolita Mountains has grown to about 3,500 acres as of Monday. Crews are using numerous aircraft, including helicopters, heavy air tankers and a very large air tanker, to help fight the blaze, which also began Friday night from lightning.

Fire crews are trying to keep the fire north of Dove Valley Road, south of Cochise Spring Road, east of the Rock House structure, and west of Powerline Road, according to the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.


©2020 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)

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