The Gila National Forest in is facing a very high risk of , with recent incidents highlighting the ongoing threat. As firefighting efforts intensify, a new danger has emerged: unauthorized drone flights near active fire sites. These drone incursions pose significant risks to aerial firefighting operations and have led to renewed warnings from local and federal authorities. The situation in Silver City underscores a nationwide challenge, balancing the benefits of with the critical need to ensure safe and effective wildfire management.

Recent Wildfires in the Gila National Forest

In Silver City, New Mexico, the Gila National Forest is currently facing a very high risk of Wildfire. The Silver City Daily Press reports that several recent fires have occurred around Silver City, including three on Boston Hill in just two days, prompting fire officials to urge residents to remain vigilant and cautious to prevent a catastrophic wildfire.

Assistant Fire Chief Aaron Seavers of the Silver City Fire Department told the Silver City Daily Press, “We had three fires around Boston Hill in the past 24 hours. It's hard to say what caused those fires. However, the Police found a man who was asleep about 50 feet away from one of them. They told him to leave the area.”

Drones Pose Serious Risks to Firefighting Efforts

The newspaper also reports that a June 1 fire on private property off Rosedale Road has sparked discussions about preventive measures and public actions during fire responses. During this incident, private drones were spotted flying above and around the fire, raising concerns about potential interference with firefighting efforts.

The Gila National Forest is currently operating under a “very high” level of fire danger, just one step below the highest “extreme” level when the most serious fire restrictions are considered. Gila National Forest Supervisor Camille Howes stated in a press release on June 14, “We appreciate the cooperation of all visitors in helping to keep our forest safe and enjoyable.”

Assistant Fire Chief Seavers emphasized the current risk to the Silver City Daily Press, saying, “The Silver City area is at risk for a wildfire. We've had a few weeks of hot and dry weather. The winds are expected to be in the 20-miles-per-hour range all this coming week. Although there is some hope for rain later in the week, we are preparing for the worst. We're asking the public to be diligent in keeping safe.”

History of Wildfires in the Gila National Forest

The Gila National Forest has a long and well-documented history of wildfires. According to research from the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, natural forest fires in this region have generally been related to dry periods, with records dating back to 1909. This 72-year record (1909-1980) of fire occurrence, compiled from records and fire scar evidence, provides crucial insights into the long-term fire dynamics that have shaped the region's ecosystem.

In recent years, the Gila National Forest has experienced several significant wildfires, highlighting the ongoing challenges faced by the region. The Las Cruces Sun-News reports that in 2022, the Black Fire burned over 325,000 acres, becoming the second-largest wildfire in New 's recorded history. The following year, in 2023, multiple wildfires affected the forest, with the Pass Fire being the largest, burning 59,833 acres as of July 14, 2023.

The threat of wildfires remains constant, with lightning strikes being a common ignition source. As recently as June 9, 2024, KRQE reported that lightning strikes ignited the Antone Fire west of Mangas Mountain in the Quemado Ranger District of the Gila National Forest. This ongoing risk underscores the importance of effective forest management strategies and the need for continued monitoring and rapid response.

Government Warnings Against Using Drones Near Wildfires

As the wildfire season intensifies, federal agencies are renewing their warnings about the dangers of flying drones near active wildfire sites. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other government agencies have launched a coordinated effort to educate the public about the severe risks posed by unauthorized drone flights in these areas.

“Drones and wildfires are a toxic mix,” states an FAA public awareness toolkit. The agency, along with the National Interagency Fire Center and the U.S. Forest Service, has been promoting the message “If you fly, we can't,” emphasizing that drone operations near wildfires can ground critical firefighting aircraft.

According to federal officials, when unauthorized drones are spotted near a wildfire, all firefighting aircraft must be grounded due to the risk of mid-air collisions. This can significantly hamper firefighting efforts, allowing fires to spread further and putting both and nearby communities at greater risk.

The problem is not theoretical. In recent years, there have been over 100 documented cases of unauthorized drones flying near wildfires, as reported by the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management. These incidents have led to delays in airborne response and increased dangers for ground crews.

The danger stems from the operational altitudes of firefighting aircraft, which often fly at very low levels – sometimes just a couple hundred feet above the ground. This is the same altitude range as many consumer drones, creating a high risk of collision.

“Firefighting aircraft typically fly in smoky, windy, and turbulent conditions,” explains a key messages document from the National Interagency Fire Center. “Safety depends on knowing what other aircraft are operating in the airspace and where they are at all times, their altitude, flight path, and intentions.”

Serious Consequences for Drone Pilots

The FAA frequently implements Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) around wildfires, prohibiting all aircraft – including drones – from entering the restricted airspace unless directly involved in firefighting operations. Even without a TFR in place, flying a drone that interferes with firefighting aircraft is a federal crime. Violators can face up to 12 months in prison and civil penalties of up to $20,000, according to the FAA's Drone Response Playbook for Public Safety.

DroneXL's Take

The use of drones in wildfire situations can be both helpful and harmful. While drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras can assist firefighters in locating hot spots and mapping the spread of fires, unauthorized drone flights by the public can seriously impede firefighting efforts. It is crucial for drone pilots to understand and respect the regulations surrounding wildfires and to prioritize the safety of firefighters and the public.

The issue of drone interference in wildfire situations is not unique to Silver City or the Gila National Forest. Recent incidents across the underscore the persistent nature of this problem and the continued need for public awareness and cooperation.

DroneXL reports that on June 19, 2024, CalFire, 's state firefighting agency, issued a stark warning to the public about the dangers of flying drones near wildfires. The agency emphasized that drone incursions have become a significant problem for firefighters in recent years, as they can interfere with aerial firefighting operations and put lives at risk.

On the same day, another incident in Texas raised alarms about drone safety. A close encounter between a drone and a firefighting helicopter battling the Barth Fire in Caldwell County highlighted the risks posed by unauthorized drones to firefighting operations. This incident serves as a stark reminder of the potential consequences of disregarding regulations that prohibit drone flights near active wildfires.

These recent events, occurring just days after the drone sightings near Silver City, illustrate that the problem of drone interference in firefighting efforts is widespread and ongoing. They reinforce the urgency of the warnings issued by local officials like Assistant Fire Chief Aaron Seavers and federal agencies like the FAA.

As the risk of wildfires continues to increase due to climate change and human activities, it is more important than ever for communities to work together to prevent and respond to these disasters. The historical context of wildfires in the Gila National Forest, combined with recent events, underscores the critical nature of this issue. By following fire safety guidelines, respecting flight restrictions, and supporting the efforts of firefighters and forest service personnel, we can help protect our forests, homes, and lives from the devastating effects of wildfires.


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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of DroneXL.co, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and EVXL.co, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ dronexl.co or @hayekesteloo.

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