Agency Hopes Apps Will Keep Drones Away from Wildfires

When Brian Cresto and his fellow firefighters fly toward a wildfire at just a few hundred feet off the ground, he's scouting for the best spot for them to land when they parachute out.

Lately, he's also been keeping an eye out for hobby drones that could take out their twin-engine propeller craft before it climbs to 1,500 feet, where the eight smokejumpers exit.

"It's dangerous anytime you drop an aircraft down to a certain level," said Cresto, a smokejumper with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "Drones are starting to be a part of that conversation."

Hobby drone ownership has spiked in recent years, and more and more of the devices have been spotted flying illegally over active wildfires, where they endanger the airplanes and helicopters used to battle the blazes.

It's a high-tech problem, and federal authorities are thinking high-tech to stop it: The U.S. Interior Department is working with drone makers and mapping companies to create a system that uses smartphone apps already on the market to quickly alert drone fliers to temporary flight restrictions at wildfires.

Initial attacks on a wildfire are crucial, but firefighting aircraft can't fly if a drone is in the restricted area because a collision could be catastrophic, officials say.

Retardant bombers and helicopters typically fly even lower than smokejumpers, at just above the trees or rooftops, and have little time to react in an emergency. A drone collision could take out an engine or break a windshield. The devices also can get sucked into a helicopter's intake or hit a rotor.

In just the past week, drone sightings have grounded aerial firefighters on three different days at a Utah blaze that has forced the evacuation of 100 homes. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert governor said those evacuations might have been avoided if not for the drones.

According to Federal Aviation...

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