Drones hindering firefighting efforts from the air

Jonathan Bloom Image
ByJonathan Bloom KGO logo
Saturday, July 25, 2015
Drones hindering firefighting from the air
It takes a special sort of pilot to fight wildfires but lately drones are making their job even tougher.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) -- One of the most vital tools in fighting a wildfire is the attack from the air.

It takes a special sort of pilot to fly in those difficult conditions but lately there's something making their job even tougher.

Calfire's Air Tanker 86 didn't always fight fires. "This was an old sub chaser and, during the war, it used to carry torpedoes. And you're right, you are sitting on a retardant tank," air tanker pilot Bob Valette said.

Valette's job is to drop those 1,200 gallons of retardant in exactly the right spot while flying 120 miles an hour in heavy wind.

PHOTOS: Large fire burns south of Lake Berryessa

"You're practicing every day that you fly. It's not a science, it's an art," he said.

In some ways, fires are easier to fight than enemy submarines. "Well, they don't shoot back, that's one thing," Valette said.

But they come with a host of challenges. "Turbulence that approaches the severe category and visibility, obviously, is limited by the smoke," he added.

Nonetheless, they'll drop load after load, sometimes going through a 50,000-gallon stash in a single sweltering day.

"You sit in your own sweat over here all day long. It can get up to 120 in there," Valette said.

But now, air tanker pilots have a new danger to contend with. More often, they're finding out they're not alone up there, as people try to get a closer look at the fire using drones.

"Drones and wildfires don't mix," the National Interagency Fire Center said in a public service announcement. "Even small drones near a fire puts lives at risk."

In one Southern California fire, cars burned on the freeway as planes sat grounded at the airport, waiting for drones to leave the airspace.

VIDEO: North Fire sweeps across 15 Freeway, burns cars

"I can't afford to bump into a drone," Valette said.

Word seems to be getting out. "Don't fly your drone at all anywhere near a fire," drone photographer Evan Kilkus said.

Kilkus shared images after the South Napa earthquake but for the Wragg fire, he's keeping his camera on the ground.

Air tankers need more space than you might think. "I'm 5 miles away from the edge of the fire right now and they're flying over me quite frequently," Kilkus said.

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