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Drone, firefighting aircraft nearly collided in Caldwell Co. fire, Texas A&M Forest Service says

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A helicopter delivering water to the 150-acre Barth Fire in Caldwell County nearly collided with a drone that came within feet of the aircraft, the Texas A&M Forest Service said in a news release Tuesday.

The agency said drones are a serious safety hazard for both the aviation resources, as well as the firefighters on the ground and can cause a serious or fatal accident if they collide with firefighting aircraft.

“Pilots have no way to detect a drone or know there is one present in the airspace until they see it,” said Jared Karns, Texas A&M Forest Service State Aviation Manager. “Suppression aircraft can respond to wildfires quickly, increasing the likelihood that a new ignition remains a small, manageable wildfire. Utilizing aircraft greatly enhances the state’s firefighting efforts, but they have to be able to fly in a safe environment.”

Furthermore, aerial firefighting may be suspended until the drone leaves the area, which may result in a larger wildfire, TAFS said. Firefighting aircraft, including leadplanes, helicopters and airtankers fly as low as 150 feet above the ground, which is the same altitude that many hobbyist drones fly, the release said.

At the request of TAFS, the Federal Aviation Administration implements Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) around wildfire areas. All aircraft, including drones, are prohibited from flying in these restricted areas. Furthermore, it is a federal crime to interfere with firefighting aircraft regardless of whether restrictions are established, the release said.

As persistent triple-digit temperatures and dry conditions result in wildfire danger for much of the state, Texas A&M Forest Service continues to mobilize aircraft to support the state’s response.

Since July, the agency has utilized more than 60 aviation resources to respond to wildfires, according to TAFS. These aircraft have responded to countless wildfires, dropping 502,503 gallons of retardant and more than 3.2 million gallons of water to slow fire spread to assist ground crews and protect homes as well as other critical infrastructure, the release said.

“These aircraft are responding to incidents every single day,” said Karns. “Please avoid wildfire areas to provide a safe environment for firefighting aircraft and ground crews.”

Since Jan. 1, state and local firefighters have responded to 3,211 wildfires for 110,633 acres burned across the state. More than 1,350 of these fires have occurred in July and August.

Flying drones during a wildfire

The Texas A&M Forest Service said flying a drone during an active wildfire response can “pose a direct threat to lives and property.”

In a previous news release, the Forest Service said flying a drone near a wildfire can “cause a serious or [a] fatal accident if it collides with firefighting aircraft.”

If a drone is seen near the fire, aircraft will be grounded for safety, which might result in wildfires becoming larger. Pilots have no way of detecting drones in the sky other than seeing them, the Forest Service said.

A firefighting aircraft uses retardant drops as a way “to cool flames for faster control by firefighters and to provide direct protection of homes and other structures,” the Forest Service said.

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