Firefighters battling the Cajete Fire near Los Alamos, New Mexico this weekend say they spotted what they called an illegal drone flying over the fire.
Drones flying over wildfires violate restricted airspace rules and forced all aerial firefighting to be stopped. Drones can interfere with wildland fire air traffic, such as air tankers, helicopters, and other firefighting aircraft that are necessary to suppress wildland fires. One of the most notable incidents was in 2015, when drones grounded crews trying to fight a massive blaze in San Bernardino, Calif.
Air Attack Supervisor Craig Campbell recorded the alleged drone on his cell phone camera, according to KRQE News 13, which you can watch below:
But after watching the footage, some in the drone community are skeptical that what firefighters called a drone was actually that.
“That’s a balloon,” one poster said in a Facebook group, whose name is not being disclosed because the group is private. Others said that the flapping motion indicated it was actually a bird.
“Party balloons have been mistaken for drones in the past,” another user posted. “I don’t think this was a quad. The fact that this was blamed on drones is suspect.”
Campbell himself described to KRQE what he saw as nothing like the typically DJI, Autel or Yuneec drones that consumers buy off the shelf (and which have been to blame for some high-profile accidents, including a crash onto the White House grounds and during a bike race).
“I would have expected it to look like a drone with four propellers that kind of flies like that,” Campbell told KRQE. “What you saw was a bright red, somewhat cylindrical object moving through the air.”
Some drone users have pointed out that the drone may resemble something like the Ascent AeroSystems Sprite drone, which originally launched on Kickstarter.
It is relatively common for reports of drone sightings to in reality be referencing any flying object — whether it’s a balloon, trash bag or a bird.
The Federal Aviation Administration recorded 1,274 possible drone sightings between February and September 2016. But the FAA has yet to verify any collision between a civil aircraft and a civil drone.
“Every investigation has found the reported collisions were either birds, impact with other items such as wires and posts, or structural failure not related to colliding with an unmanned aircraft,” according to an FAA news release.
“Back in the 70s and 80s, everything pilots saw was a UFO. Now everything they see is a drone,” Richard Hanson, President of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, told Popular Science. “Drones are the new UFOs.”
In 2016, a drone reportedly hit a British Airways flight as it approached London Heathrow airport. But UK’s Minister of State for Transport Robert Goodwill later said the reported drone strike was not confirmed it was actually a drone.
“There’s indeed some speculation that it may have even been a plastic bag or something,” Goodwill said.
It is worth noting that it is illegal to fly a drone over a wildfire. Per the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, 43 CFR 9212.1(f), it is illegal to resist or interfere with the efforts of firefighters to extinguish a fire. In the eyes of the law, drones flying over a fire do interfere with firefighting efforts.
So please, for the sake of the rest of the drone community, never fly a drone in or around a wildfire.