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Fire officials warn about the danger of drones in wildfire areas

Courtesy of the Idaho Department of Lands
A helicopter drops water on a fire recently in Boundary County.

A drone in Boundary County recently kept aircraft from getting an early look at a new fire.

Idaho state officials are asking people not to fly drones in areas where wildfires are burning.

Robbie Johnson from the Department of Lands says pilots from her agency wanted to get up in the air about a week ago to check on a newly-ignited fire in Boundary County.

“We had 50 homes potentially at risk, Idaho Forest Group mill potentially at risk and we needed aircraft right away and they were available. Unfortunately, a drone was identified in the area and the aircraft couldn’t be used until the drone was out of the area," she said.

This story has a happy ending. Once the firefighting planes and helicopter were able to fly, they managed to drop water on the flames and keep them from spreading beyond a few acres.

Johnson says drones are becoming a more common problem for firefighting planes.

“They’re flying at a really low altitude, about the same altitude as drones. So that could create a situation with a mid-air collision, pilot distraction and also the drone losing communication with the operator and falling on a ground crew. It’s something that’s taken very seriously and it’s something that happens, unfortunately, more times than we’d like," she said.

Johnson says drones do have beneficial uses for firefighters, helping them sense heat from fires and finding precise locations. But they’re more often nuisances.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.