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Drones increasingly interfere with aerial firefighting, official says

Fire retardant uselessly discarded, planes grounded
A single engine air tanker drops its load of fire retardant high above the Lightner Creek Fire on Wednesday evening after a drone was reported flying in the area causing all air support to stop. The retardant was released at too high altitude to be useful.

Drones are an increasing problem at wildfires, and that proved true this week at the Lightner Creek Fire west of Durango.

Air operations were grounded around sunset Wednesday because drones made it unsafe for pilots to fly, Chris Tipton, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said Thursday.

Pilots can’t see drones and they can get into a plane’s engine or go through the windshield and harm the pilot, he said.

The planes were ready to drop retardant on the section of the fire moving toward Durango when they were grounded, he said.

Two planes had to jettison about 1,600 gallons of retardant worth between $8,000 and $10,000. One plane dropped it too high above the fire to do any good and another plane dropped it near the Durango-La Plata County Airport, he said.

The Durango Police Department spoke with two people flying drones over the fire Wednesday night, La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham said.

Evan Niccum was flying a drone in the Rockridge area and boy under 18 was flying a second drone; others also were reported in the area, she said.

The police turned the information about the pilots over to the U.S. Forest Service, she said.

While flying drones in a fire operations area is a federal crime, it is not unusual.

“We’re seeing these problems happen more and more across the west and it’s not getting any better, it’s getting worse,” Tipton said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

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