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Texas Aerial Firefighting Efforts Impeded by Interloping Drone

Beyond the Vilest Limits Of Stupidity (BVLOS)

A drone operating in close proximity to the 150-acre Barth Fire in east-south-central Texas’s Caldwell County inadvertently neared to within feet of a helicopter engaged in fighting the blaze.

The 18 August incident raised renewed awareness of the hazards posed by unauthorized drones to both aviation resources and firefighters on the ground.

Texas A&M Forest Service State Aviation Manager Jared Karns stated: "Pilots have no way to detect a drone or know there is one present in the airspace until they see it. Suppression aircraft can respond to wildfires quickly, increasing the likelihood that a new ignition remains a small, manageable wildfire. Utilizing aircraft greatly enhances the state's firefighting efforts, but they have to be able to fly in a safe environment."

In the event unauthorized drones are observed or otherwise detected in the vicinity of aerial firefighting efforts, operations of firefighting aircraft may be suspended until the drone(s) vacate(s) the area. Such interruptions are apt to result in the otherwise avoidable and often deadly spread of fires.

Aerial firefighting assets include fixed- and rotary-wing spotter aircraft, lead-planes, and tankers. Engaged in firefights, such aircraft operate at altitudes as low as 150-feet AGL—altitudes at which hobbyists typically operate drones.

The Federal Aviation Administration, at the behest of Texas A&M Forest Service, has implemented Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) over and around active wildfires. All aircraft, to include Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)—colloquially, drones—are prohibited from operating in such areas. Moreover, willful interference with firefighting aircraft, regardless of the establishment of TFRs, is a federal crime punishable by incarceration and fines of up to $25,000.

The summer of 2023 has burdened Texans with persistent triple-digit temperatures and chronically dry conditions. Since July, firefighting efforts undertaken by Texas A&M Forest Service have seen the mobilization of more than sixty aviation resources. For purpose of saving lives and property across the Lone Star State, subject aircraft have collectively dropped upwards of 502,503-gallons of retardant and 3.2-million gallons of water on Texas wildfires.

Mr. Karns implored: "These aircraft are responding to incidents every single day. Please avoid wildfire areas to provide a safe environment for firefighting aircraft and ground crews."

Since 01 January 2023, Texas state and local firefighters have responded to 3,211 wildfires which, in the aggregate, have incinerated some 110,633 acres of land. The months of June and July, alone, saw upwards of 1,350 fires.

FMI: https://tfsweb.tamu.edu/CurrentSituation


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