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San Diego County’s Helicopter 10 assists firefighters in Carlsbad

A drone pilot posted aerial video illegally shot of the fire while a helicopter was dropping water

San Diego County Helicopter 10 (N449RC) fire Carlsbad
A San Diego County Bell 205, (N449RC) drops on a fire in Carlsbad, CA June 25, 2022. Photo by Ryan Grothe.

Ryan Grothe got some photos of one of the San Diego County Sheriff Department’s Bell 205 helicopters, H- 10 (N449RC), as it assisted firefighters battling a 10-acre fire in the Buena Vista Lagoon June 25, 2022 near Carlsbad, California between Carlsbad Blvd. and Interstate 5.

Evacuations were in effect for a while but no structures were damaged.

The police arrested and charged David Prosser, a 59-year-old man from Carlsbad, with arson and resisting arrest.

San Diego County Helicopter 10 (N449RC)
San Diego County Helicopter 10 (N449RC) at a fire near Carlsbad Blvd. June 25, 2022. Photo by Ryan Grothe.

A drone was illegally flying near the fire

Within hours after the spread of the fire was stopped, a drone video with aerial footage of the incident was posted on YouTube by New Wave Aerial. The video includes a very clear shot of Helicopter 10 flying  toward the drone at about the same altitude then banking to the left as it maneuvered prior to dropping a load of water on the fire. It is difficult to tell how close the two aircraft were without knowing what type of lens the drone was using, but they may have been just a few hundred feet apart.

New Wave Aerial illegal drone footage fire
Still image posted by New Wave Video shot near the fire in Carlsbad, CA June 25, 2022. The helicopter, seen on the right, had just banked to its left after flying toward the drone.

It is very dangerous to fly a drone over a fire at which helicopters or fixed wing aircraft are operating. A collision could impact the windscreen or damage the engine, props, rotors, or flight control surfaces causing a crash. If a drone is seen near a fire the standard operating procedure is to remove all aircraft from the fire area until it is confirmed that the drone has left the scene. In other words, it interferes with firefighting efforts.

Sergeant G. Lanning of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Astrea helicopter division told Fire Aviation that they were not aware that the drone was at the fire. If it had been spotted, it would have shut down the aviation operation at the fire, he said.

Calls to the FAA and New Wave Video were not immediately returned.

The rules

The FAA often implements Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) around wildfires to protect aircraft that are involved in the firefighting operation. All aircraft, including drones, are prohibited from flying in the restricted area unless they’re operated by an agency that’s involved in the firefighting operation. Even if a TFR is not in place, drone pilots should avoid flying near wildfires. It’s a federal crime to interfere with firefighting aircraft regardless of whether restrictions are established, and violators can face stiff penalties.

Fire Traffic Area

It is common on a fire whether or not a TFR is in force, to establish a Fire Traffic Area (FTA) over a fire to provide a standardized initial attack airspace structure and protocol to enhance traffic separation over wildfires. An aircraft should NOT enter the FTA until it receives a clearance. The standard FTA utilizes a minimum 5 nautical mile radius from the incident, although a radius greater than 5 miles may be utilized if needed by the incident.

Penalties

It’s a federal crime punishable by up to 12 months in prison to interfere with firefighting efforts on public lands. Additionally, Congress has authorized the FAA to impose a civil penalty of up to $20,000 against any drone pilot who interferes with wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response operations. The FAA treats these violations seriously, and will immediately consider swift enforcement action for these offenses.

According to the US Forest Service, in 2019 at least 20 documented instances of unauthorized drone flights over or near wildfires in seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Washington and Minnesota) resulted in aerial firefighting operations being temporarily shut down nine times. There is no centralized national mechanism to report unauthorized UAS flights over wildfires, so these are only the incidents that wildfire management agencies have become aware of, there are likely more that are not known about.

Suspending air operations could decrease the effectiveness of wildfire suppression operations, allowing wildfires to grow larger, and in some cases, unduly threaten lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources. The effects of lost aircraft time could be compounded by flames moving into untreated terrain.

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Map, fire in Carlsbad, CA June 25, 2022
Map, fire in Carlsbad, CA June 25, 2022.

We are not going to show it, but a local aerial photography service, New Wave Aerial, shot video apparently from a drone while Helicopter 10 was working on the fire. The helicopter can clearly be seen, perhaps just a few hundred feet away from the drone.

Operating a drone near other aircraft, especially helicopters and air tankers working on a fire, is extremely dangerous and can be illegal. A collision could cause a crash and the death of the flight crew.

drone over Carlsbad fire New Wave Aerial
Still image from video by New Wave Aerial, drone over Carlsbad fire, June 25, 2022.