STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Crews fighting forest fires face a hazard beyond the threat of fire itself. It's a threat from drones. Those little unmanned aerial vehicles that you can now buy in stores have been interfering with helicopters and airplanes dropping water.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Could that really be happening that often?
INSKEEP: It has happened at least five times this summer at different points in the West, including once this week. Each time operations had to be shut down to keep air crews safe. Scott Graf reports from Boise State Public Radio.
SCOTT GRAF, BYLINE: Soon after the Lake Fire started last month on the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California, it threatened hundreds of homes. Fire officials responded by sending numerous resources.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There have now been 1,200 firefighters called out here to this incident to fight the blaze on the ground. And they have called in 10 helicopters...
GRAF: Mike Eaton was one of the pilots called upon to help fight the fire. He says around 5:30 in the afternoon on June 24, those flying over the Lake Fire noticed a drone.
MIKE EATON: It flew between the altitudes of the air attack plane and the lead plane. The lead plane had an air tanker in tow. And they were working on making a run and dropping the retardant.
GRAF: The aerial attack was immediately called off out of fear of a midair collision. The three air tankers attacking the Lake Fire were parked the rest of the day. The fire grew as a result. Robert West is in his 44th year of flying over Western fires. It's considered the most dangerous type of flying there is outside of aerial combat. West says trying to spot tiny unmanned aircraft is making his job even more difficult.
ROBERT WEST: We usually have visibility problems anyway with the smoke and keeping track of our lead planes and helicopters on the fire, let alone look out for a drone. And by the time we probably saw something, if it was very small, we couldn't do anything about it. It'd just be there.
GRAF: West worries an unmanned aircraft hitting one of his tankers engines would cause an emergency. In 2014, there were four known instances of drones interfering with aerial firefighting. That's when people like Aitor Bidaburu began to worry.
AITOR BIDABURU: If we are putting the firefighters in a place where they can't fully engage the fire because they don't have the tools that they need and the fires are going to get worse and threaten communities, I think that's a big issue.
GRAF: Bidaburu is a wildland fire program manager with the U.S. Fire Administration in Boise, Idaho. He, like many in his line of work, think most of the problems are being caused by hobbyists who just don't understand the rules.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "UNMANNED AERIAL SYSTEMS/DRONES PSA")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No drone flight or picture or video is worth a life. Not only is it a bad and dangerous idea, only authorized aircraft are permitted to fly near wildfires.
GRAF: Firefighting agencies posted this YouTube video in June as part of a public education campaign. The FAA says it, too, prefers to focus on outreach right now, though a spokesman does point out the maximum fine for flying drones too close to fires is $25,000. And now two California lawmakers have introduced a bill that would allow firefighters to destroy nearby unmanned aircraft. Mike Eaton, one of the pilots grounded by a drone last month near LA, says pausing the aerial fight on the Lake Fire didn't turn out to be that big of a deal. But done elsewhere, he says, it could've been catastrophic.
EATON: If this had been down in the Valley, a typical urban interface incident, yeah, it would have made a huge difference on our ability to protect the people's homes, infrastructure or a possibility of loss of life.
GRAF: The issue is one the drone industry is watching. Some companies provide FAA literature on safe flying in drone packaging. Others, though, say using cloud-based technology to teach unmanned aircraft where they should and should not fly is a better solution. For NPR News, I'm Scott Graf in Boise.
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