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Recreational drone interrupts firefighting efforts near the Webber fire


NORTH VALLEY – After a recreational drone caused a disruption in firefighting efforts on the Webber fire, officials are once again reminding the public that flying drones near fires is dangerous for firefighters.

An individual operating a recreational Unmanned Aircraft System near the Webber fire on the Tonto National Forest on July 21 disrupted wildfire operations for more than two hours when forest officials shut down air operations for safety reasons.

Ground personnel spotted the UAS, often referred to as a (hobby) “drone”, at approximately 11:15 a.m. Information on the sighting was relayed to two helicopter crews, which were flying low-level, fire-suppression missions.

According to Matthew Huse, Air Tanker Base Manager for the Tonto, once the drone was spotted, the helicopters were pulled back and returned to their base in Payson.

“Unfortunately, when we suspend operations there is the potential for wildfires to grow larger, and in some cases, unduly threaten lives and property,” Huse said. “But firefighter and public safety are our top priorities in wildfire management.”

“We need the public to understand that aerial firefighting aircraft, such as air tankers and helicopters, fly at low altitudes, sometimes two or three hundred feet above the ground,” Huse said. “That’s about the same altitude as Unmanned Aircraft Systems.”

“This creates the potential for a mid-air collision that could seriously injure or kill aerial and/or ground firefighters,” Huse continued. “Additionally, an unmanned aircraft system flown by a member of the public that loses its communication link could fall from the sky, causing serious injuries or deaths of firefighters on the ground.”

Law enforcement officials were notified of the drone near the Webber fire and began a search but were unable to locate the drone’s operator.

Helicopters resumed suppression missions at approximately 2 p.m. after officials concluded that the UAS had left the area and were confident it would not return.

The Webber fire primarily is in the Payson Ranger District, one of six districts within the Tonto.