CADILLAC, MI – The USDA Forest Service (USFS) is prepositioning aerial firefighting resources at the Gaylord Airport to be available for state and federal land management agencies battling an increase in wildfire activity.

Chad Runyan, USFS North Zone Aviation Officer, stated that having aerial resources in the Great Lakes reduces wildfire response time thanks to the centralized location and swift ability to respond.

However, aerial firefighting resources can be greatly impacted by the growing presence of  Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or drones, being seen flying overhead of wildland fires.

Runyan explained that firefighting aircraft fly at very low altitudes, typically just a couple of hundred feet above the ground, the same as UAS flown by members of the public and others do. “This creates the potential for a mid-air collision or pilot distraction that could result in a serious or fatal accident,” he said. Firefighter and public safety are the top priorities in wildfire management. Unauthorized drone flights over or near a wildfire could cause serious injury or death to firefighters in the air and/or firefighters and members of the public on the ground.

Runyan added that individuals who fly drones without authorization over wildfires may be violating federal, state, and/or local laws, regulations, and ordinances, whether a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) is in place or not.

The FAA released a mobile device application, B4UFLY, as a simple way for drone operators to check airspace and local advisories before taking flight. “Stay compliant and contribute to safer national airspace by making yourself aware of advisories and restrictions in the airspace and local advisories around you,” notes the FAA.

The Forest Service, and other federal, state, and local agencies have been working diligently for several years to educate the public about the dangers associated with flying UAS over or near wildfires. Educational efforts include the USFS’s “If You Fly, We Can’t” campaign and the Tread Lightly “Respected Access is Open Access” campaign.