Illegal Drone Grounds Firefighting Aircraft in 500-Acre Oregon Wildfire Battle

An unauthorized drone flight has forced the suspension of aerial firefighting efforts against the Upper Applegate Fire in Jackson County, , report KTVZ. The incident highlights the growing challenge of drone interference in suppression operations and recalls the region's history of significant wildfire events.

Drone Sighting Halts Aerial Operations

On Friday evening, fire personnel spotted an illegal drone flying near the Upper Applegate Fire, prompting an immediate grounding of all firefighting aircraft.

The Oregon Department of Forestry emphasized the gravity of the situation in a Facebook post, stating, “Drones can cause fatal accidents and the safety of our pilots and below is not something we will risk.”

Jackson County sheriff's deputies are actively searching for the drone operator. Anyone with information about the illegal drone flight is urged to contact the JCSO Tip Line at (541) 774-8333.

Historical Context of Wildfires in Southern Oregon

Jackson County and the surrounding areas of Southern Oregon have a long history of wildfires, with several notable events in recent years:

  • In 2020, the Almeda Fire devastated parts of Jackson County, destroying over 2,800 structures in the cities of Talent and Phoenix.
  • The 2018 Klondike Fire burned over 175,000 acres in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, becoming one of Oregon's largest wildfires.
  • The 2017 Chetco Bar Fire burned nearly 192,000 acres, impacting both Curry and Josephine counties adjacent to Jackson County.

These events have underscored the region's vulnerability to wildfires and the critical importance of efficient firefighting efforts, including aerial operations.

FAA Warnings on Drone Use Near Wildfires

The incident at the Upper Applegate Fire underscores the importance of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) repeated warnings about flying drones near wildfires. The FAA has been increasingly vocal about this issue in recent years:

  • The FAA's “If You Fly, We Can't” campaign emphasizes that unauthorized drone operations can force firefighting aircraft to be grounded, potentially costing lives and property.
  • According to the FAA's wildfire safety guidelines, flying a drone near or over a wildfire is illegal and can result in significant fines and potential criminal prosecution.
  • The agency has implemented a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) system that establishes Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) around wildfires, prohibiting all unauthorized aircraft, including drones.

“Interfering with firefighting operations is dangerous and illegal,” states the FAA. Violations can result in civil penalties of up to $20,000 and potential criminal prosecution.

Fire Details and Response

The Upper Applegate Fire, burning south of Ruch in Jackson County, has grown to approximately 500 acres. The blaze is affecting private, BLM, and land on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, with firefighters battling the flames in extremely steep terrain.

In response to the fire's threat, the Oregon State Fire Marshal mobilized two structural task forces from Lane and Polk counties to support the Applegate Valley Fire District. This deployment was made possible through the Immediate Response tool, part of the state's Response Ready Oregon initiative.

Evacuation Notices and Other Fires

The Jackson County Sheriff's Office has issued Level 1 “Be Ready” evacuation notices for homes near the fire. Residents are advised to stay informed and prepared.

Simultaneously, firefighters are tackling other wildfires in the region. The Highway 62 Fire south of Shady Cove has been 100% lined at 75 acres, while a new grassfire near Cave Junction was quickly contained at about 5-6 acres.

Wildfire Prevention Crucial

Oregon State Fire Marshal Mariana Ruiz-Temple stressed the importance of community involvement in fire prevention: “Our priority is to proactively protect our communities from the threat of wildfires. We urge everyone to help our firefighters by taking preventive measures to avoid sparking a wildfire this summer and follow all burning restrictions.”

For more information on wildfire prevention, residents can visit the Oregon State Fire Marshal's wildfire prevention tips page.

DroneXL's Take

The drone interference at the Upper Applegate Fire is a stark reminder of the FAA's warnings about the dangers of flying drones near wildfires. This incident, set against Southern Oregon's history of destructive wildfires, highlights the potential consequences of disregarding these regulations.

The FAA's strict stance on drone use near wildfires is not without reason. As we've reported previously, incidents like the June 2023 warning from CalFire about the dangers of flying drones near wildfires and the close call between a drone and a firefighting helicopter in Texas demonstrate the ongoing challenges of integrating safely into emergency scenarios.

These recent events are part of a concerning trend we've been tracking at DroneXL. Just last week, we reported on drones grounded as wildfire risk soared in Silver City, New Mexico, where the Gila National Forest faced a very high risk of wildfire. The situation in Silver City mirrors the current incident in Oregon, underscoring the widespread nature of this issue.

However, it's crucial to note that when used responsibly and by authorized personnel, drones can be valuable assets in firefighting efforts. The development of Drone As First Responder (DFR) programs, such as the successful initiative in Chula Vista, shows how drones can enhance emergency response capabilities when operated by trained professionals.

The incident at the Upper Applegate Fire serves as a call to action for both the drone community and regulatory bodies. It emphasizes the need for continued about drone regulations, stricter enforcement of existing rules, and the development of technologies that can prevent drones from entering restricted airspace during emergencies.

As climate change continues to exacerbate wildfire risks, particularly in regions like Southern Oregon with its history of devastating fires, the responsible use of drone technology becomes even more critical. The drone community must prioritize safety and compliance to ensure that these tools can be leveraged effectively in emergency response without compromising ongoing firefighting efforts.

These recent incidents, from Oregon to to , highlight a national challenge in managing drone use during wildfires. They underscore the importance of our ongoing coverage at DroneXL, as we strive to keep the drone community informed about the latest developments, regulations, and best practices in this rapidly evolving field.

Photo courtesy of Department of Forestry


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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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