Bend drone flight contributed to wildfire warning

Federal firefighting agencies say drones near, over fires could be dangerous

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Published Aug 22, 2014 at 12:01AM

As the Two Bulls Fire sent up a massive column of smoke over west Bend on June 7, Morgan Tien and his friends were hanging by the Awbrey Glen Golf Club pool just miles from the flames.

The 14-year-old amateur cinematographer hustled to his nearby home and sent his DJI Phantom — a small quadcopter carrying a GoPro camera — aloft. Launching the unmanned, four-prop helicopter from his back patio, Morgan captured aerial footage of the fire and then posted it to YouTube. It was a departure from the videos already up on his channel, mostly action reels of skateboarding and skiing, and it was a hit.

Viewers checked out the video “to see where the fire was and where it was moving,” Morgan said. They asked for more, and he responded, posting a second video the next day, June 8. The Two Bulls Fire burned 6,908 acres, mostly private timberland. The cause of the fire remains under investigation, with the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office calling it likely arson.

Morgan’s drone flights prompted a response from the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management. The agencies issued an interagency aviation safety alert June 25 to aviation operations around the country.

“Although the aircraft remained outside the (temporary flight restriction area), it serves as a reminder that this emerging hazard is becoming more common due to their reduction in cost and the public’s interest in fire and natural disasters,” the statement reads.

This month, federal wildfire officials followed up with a warning for drone operators that flying within or near wildfires could threaten the safety of firefighters on the ground and in the air.

Morgan isn’t the only person who has flown a drone near a wildfire this year. Fire officials also spotted drones at the Carlton Complex Fire in Washington and the Sand Fire in California, said Mike Ferris, spokesman for the Forest Service in Portland. Last year, there was only one drone seen at a wildfire.

“I can only anticipate that this is going to (continue to) increase,” he said.

For a couple of hundred dollars, people can purchase a drone and a high-definition camera. Morgan said he saved money he earned doing chores and yard work, as well as birthday money, to buy the Phantom and GoPro. The setup cost about $800.

Drones may be a problem for firefighters if the drones fly into restricted airspace over and near a wildfire, where air tankers and helicopters could be buzzing around, Ferris said. If firefighters spot a drone close to a fire, they may suspend the aerial delivery of retardant and water from air tankers and helicopters.

Although the drones are small, they could cause big aircraft to crash.

“We just want people to be aware and know the rules and know that it could become a hazard,” Ferris said.

There have been no reported collisions between airplanes or helicopters and drones in Central Oregon or the rest of the country, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Whereas people using a drone for business purposes need a waiver from the FAA, people using a drone for recreation don’t need such approval. They should fly safely and obey the law, according to the agency.

Morgan, the Bend teen, said he has read federal guidelines when it comes to when and where he can fly his Phantom.

He said he hasn’t been contacted by federal agencies about his Two Bulls Fire flights and said he’d fly again near another wildfire after making sure he was following rules and not violating any restrictions.

Like Ferris with the Forest Service, Morgan expects to see more people flying drones around events such as wildfires soon.

“We are just entering this realm of drones,” he said.

For many people, the term “drone” has a negative connotation, and Morgan said he thinks people tend to overreact to it. To him a drone simply is a radio-controlled helicopter with a camera on board.

“I don’t think that all drones should be looked down upon,” Morgan said.

For 18 years, Waldemar Frank, president of the Bend Aero Modelers club, has flown radio-controlled model airplanes. Wondering if new rules for drones will also put restrictions on his hobby, Frank is among those closely watching the rise of drones.

“Everything is still up in the air,” he said.

The club has a few people with quadcopters, which don’t require a runway like a model airplane, Frank said. He said there will likely be stricter FAA regulations for drones, but it’s unclear whether they will pertain to people flying radio airplanes in a club.

The Forest Service itself is interested in using drones to collect information about wildfires, such as determining perimeters and checking for spot fires.

The California Army National Guard flew predator drones on the Rim Fire, which burned in and near Yosemite National Park, last year. The drones there flew at more than 18,000 feet, above the temporary flight restriction area.

Ferris said the Forest Service may consider requests from private drone operators for an exception to flight restrictions, as it does for news helicopters, but flights into the temporary flight restriction area would have to be planned and approved.

One of the main concerns about drone flights such as those on the Two Bulls, Carlton Complex and Sand fires is that officials didn’t know when and where drones would be flying.

“It all comes down to communications, and in these three incidents (this year), we didn’t have any communications with the operators,” Ferris said.

Having used drones to monitor potato crops in Eastern Oregon, Bend-based drone consulting company Paradigm has worked closely with researchers and the FAA in planning flights, said David Blair, director of government and public relations for the company.

He said he would meet with firefighting agencies ahead of fire season to develop specific rules and procedures before flying a drone near or over a wildfire.

“These are complicated situations,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com