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Drones preventing crews from combating wildfires

Wildfires hit north of Walla Walla, Wash. in August 2016. (Greg Lehman/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin via AP)

Drones are becoming a nuisance to fire crews combating blazes across the nation. But they were more than just an irritation recently in the Olympic National Park. A drone halted all air support for nearly a day.

Though it’s not the largest of wildfires blazing through the Olympic National Park, the Cox Valley Fire is the closest to infrastructure and human activity. That makes it dangerous. And despite the need for air support to address the fire, crews were recently grounded because a drone was in the area.

“A drone was found in the same airspace so our aircraft are not allowed to fly (when drones are in the same area),” said Brandon Cadwell, spokesperson for firefighters combating the wildfires in the Olympic National Park.

“If you fly, we can’t,” he said.

“It’s a reoccurring and growing problem in wildfires throughout the west,” he added. “Over 30 flights on various fires in the United States this year have had to come out of the sky due to drones being flown.”

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Use of drones inside of national parks is prohibited and illegal. Cadwell said that law enforcement does pursue legal action against those who violate that rule, especially given the gravity of the situation. There are about four major wildfires burning in the Olympic National Park: the Cox Valley Fire is 56 acres; the Hayes fire is 933 acres; Ignar Creek fire is just under an acre; and the Godkin fire is around 325 acres.

The drone incident occurred on Aug. 19. It was spotted in the region of the Cox Valley fire that afternoon. And from that point on, through the entire evening that followed, no air support for fire operations could take to the sky. Crews attempted to hunt down the drone operator, but they could not locate anyone.

“Any time they are in the same airspace, we can’t fly so we ground any of our aircraft, regardless of what it is, until the airspace is clear again,” Cadwell said.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” he said. “We could be hauling personnel into an area to work, or resupplying a crew that’s been out there for several days. Or we could be doing bucket work to take heat off the edge of a fire. But as soon as that drone is in the sky, we have to come out.”

Wildfire drones down, weather coming

Cadwell is hoping that word is getting out and keeping the wildfire drones grounded. The current plan for many of the fires is to monitor them and let them take their natural course. But they monitor in case they threaten human lives and property. And they aren’t likely to snuff out anytime soon. In fact, the weather on the horizon that will help them grow.

“We do have an incoming weather pattern that is going to bring us warmer temperatures and lower humidity which is a combination for higher fire activity,” Cadwell said. “We are expecting some higher fire activity and growth on all of our fires. To what degree is yet to be seen. We expect that in the coming days.”

Cadwell asks that whoever is flying wildfire drones in the area of operations to stop.

“Even though that picture or video you get is cool, it stops us from doing any operations we are trying to do,” he said.

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