Here’s your annual reminder to stop flying drones over wildfires

It’s wildfire season again. With more than 120 wildfires are burning across 1.6 million acres in the United States, including California’s Holy Fire and Mendocino Complex Fire, which is the largest California wildfire in recorded history, it’s time to remind pilots not to fly drones over the disaster areas.

“Firefighters across the nation have repeatedly been forced to cease helicopter and airplane operations because the presence of drones prevented them from flying safely,” according to a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration. “In these circumstances, the minutes or hours of flight delay could mean lost lives and destroyed property. ”

Firefighters typically will not fly their own aircraft over the wildfires if they spot a drone in the area due to threat of a collision.

And not only is flying a drone  over wildfires dangerous — it can be illegal.

A large amount of space over the burning areas is currently under a NOTAM including Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. (Drone Girl’s hometown), due to the fires. A NOTAM is short for notice to airmen, and is something filed by the FAA to alert pilots of hazards in areas they are flying in. Under the restrictions of those NOTAMs, “no pilots may operate an aircraft in the areas covered by this NOTAM.” You can view all active NOTAMs here.

People who interfere with fire suppression efforts will face civil penalties that could exceed $20,000, as well as potential criminal prosecution, according to the FAA.

Not sure where you can legally fly? The Know Before You Fly has a live airspace map with real-time updates of whether or not a NOTAM or Temporary Flight Restriction is in place. Simply input the address of the area where you intend to fly, and the map can show you if that spot is blocked or not.

A number of media outlets, ranging from The Guardian to The Los Angeles Times, have published images and videos showing the wildfires and subsequent devastation. Though, this isn’t to suggest all the images you see published from the fires are illegal. Aircraft can fly in areas covered by a NOTAM if they are properly accredited news representatives and, prior to entering that area, a flight plan is filed with the appropriate FSS or ATC facility specified in the NOTAM.

And that’s not to say that drones and wildfires don’t mix — they just don’t mix if you are a hobbyist seeking to capitalize on the fires for your photos.

Firefighters and other emergency service providers are adopting drones at a rapid pace. At least 910 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency service agencies in the U.S. now have drones — an increase of 82% over the last year. Firefighters use drones to see through smoke via thermal imaging cameras, to monitor ground crew locations, identify smoldering hot spots and see current fire conditions.

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