As wildland fires continue to burn around the region, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources has a blunt message for operators of unmanned aerial vehicles: “STOP FLYING DRONES NEAR WILDFIRES. DRONES GROUND OUR AIRCRAFT.”
“Can’t believe we have to say this,” the agency posted on social media earlier this week.
The message was also shared in recent news releases as DNR personnel and scores of other firefighters battled two major blazes which started last Friday in Spokane County, prompting mass evacuations of residents and destroying hundreds of homes. Two related deaths have been reported.
Authorities say drones pose a serious threat to aircraft which “fly low and fast” when planes and helicopters are used to assess and combat the flames.
Drone operators who intrude into a fire space are subject to Federal Aviation Administration violations with civil penalties ranging up to $27,500 plus possible criminal prosecution.
In June, air crews had to leave the Iron Creek Fire in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest near Randle due to a drone in the area, DNR reported.
“Our firefighting operations are more important than those 12 likes you'll get on Instagram,” the department said on its Facebook post. “Interference with our aerial operations could cost our fire crews crucial time.”
The same warning applies to boaters trying to “race” aircraft scooping water from lakes for fire suppression. DNR cited one instance where a jet ski drove in front of a scooper.
“It's not cute! You'll lose (your pride and possibly your boat),” the advisory stated. “There are multiple fires on the landscape. We’re trying to contain them quickly. Give our crews space to put them out!”
In an update issued this Friday morning in Spokane County, the Gray Fire near Medical Lake has burned an estimated 10,016 acres and is considered 68% contained. A total of 638 personnel have been deployed on the blaze, including 13 crews, 72 engines, three bulldozers and 17 water tenders.
As residents begin to return, authorities said crews are mopping up the perimeter and working inside the burned area to perform structure assessments, take down hazardous trees, and suppress hot spots. The arrival of rain earlier this week was welcome and light showers might arrive today before warmer weather returns this weekend with temperatures in the 90s, the report stated.
A closed portion of Interstate 90 between Spokane and Sprague was also reopened earlier this week, along with access to State Routes 904 and 902.
In north Spokane County, just over 1,000 personnel are assigned to the Oregon Fire, which has burned an estimated 11,063 acres and is considered 16% contained. There, 25 crews are utilizing 71 engines, 10 bulldozers, 21 water tenders, and four helicopters.
The incident crew used its own authorized aerial drones on the fire’s east flank to scout for pockets of heat and improve containment line locations.
“Great progress has been made in containment line strength (notably on the west flank) and structure protection, with none lost in the last 48 hours,” Friday’s update stated.
Evacuation levels continue to change and residents were advised to check updated maps posted on Facebook for Spokane and Pend Oreille counties.