Originally Published: August 28, 2015 6 a.m.
PRESCOTT - A couple of weeks back, a wildland fire burned along Interstate 15 in California, and fire managers were forced to watch cars and trucks go up in flames for 15 to 20 minutes.
The culprit that slowed the firefighting?
Five privately owned drones that flew in and around the smoky air over the freeway, presumably taking photos.
They forced firefighting helicopters, which would have been dropping water on the vehicles, to stop operations for fear of a mid-air collision.
Similar conflicts have arisen in California at least twice since.
"Especially on a big, heavy fire, where (there's) a lot of smoke, (and) visibility is limited, (drones) are dangerous," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Debbie Maneely said. She noted that non-firefighting aircraft are excluded from fire scenes by a temporary flight restriction issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and that's to avoid potentially deadly conflicts in the sky.
"Fire managers may have to suspend aerial firefighting until they get all the unauthorized (drones) to leave the area, which allows the fire to grow," she said.
Although "it's become a very big concern" nationally, Maneely said she hasn't experienced drone intrusions into fires on the Prescott National Forest, primarily, she said, because we have had few major fires this year.
"Drone" is what people commonly call the (usually) small, four- or six-rotor copters that have been used for aerial photography in the last few years. The term originally referred to military aircraft that are flown remotely with no pilot on board, and that's contributed to some public concern about the current crop of quad-copters, which generally carry cameras, not weapons.
In January, Kentucky Sen. (and 2016 Republican presidential candidate) Rand Paul told a CNN interviewer that if a drone flies over his house, "they better beware, because I've got a shotgun."
Internet websites are full of people saying they might do the same thing if they saw a quad-copter over their property.
Not a wise idea, Prescott Police Lt. Amy Bonney said. "I would think that discharging a firearm at a drone, even if on private property, may constitute a violation of (state law): 'A person who with criminal negligence discharges a firearm within or into the limits of any municipality is guilty of a Class 6 felony.'"
Yavapai County Sheriff's Office spokesman Dwight D'Evelyn said that, in the unincorporated county, the answer is the same: Don't shoot.
"We are not aware of any law that would allow such action," he said. "The property owner should contact law enforcement if there is a concern and we will try and address the issue in light of FAA rules or state laws" and taking into consideration "the intent of the drone owner."
For decades, hobbyists have flown "RC aircraft" - radio-controlled, detailed, scale model airplanes and even helicopters, and some have carried tiny cameras.
Until recently, no one outside the pilots of these miniature planes has really given their hobby much thought.
Jack Hardy is a member of the local Casa de Aero RC flying club, and he flies both scale models and a quad-copter, which he said he's had for about four years.
"It was just something different," he said. "It looked like it would be a lot of fun to fly, so I did get one, and it is fun to fly."
Hardy mostly flies at the club's field and follows the generally accepted rules for RC aircraft, as laid out by the FAA and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). They include:
* Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles.
* Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times.
* Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.
* Don't fly within five miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying.
* Don't fly near people or stadiums.
A photography buff, Hardy was intrigued by the versatility of the tiny rotorcraft.
"The quad with the camera on it ... takes a different angle of photographs," he said, noting that he's flown and shot photos at Watson Lake "and you don't have to be very high to do it."
But he knows there's a concern among members of the public that comes with flying a quad-copter.
"I think the word 'drone' is just a bad word," he said, noting the military connotations.
"But you can buy them anywhere - all the department stores, and in all different sizes," he said, "and they're easy to learn to fly."
That's part of their popularity. A model helicopter would typically be more expensive, harder to learn to fly, and, of course, pricey to repair if the operator crashes it.
Hardy said it's critical that new operators be given some instruction on the do's and don'ts of RC flying.
"Very little instruction goes out about where you can fly it and what you can do with it," he said, because many quad-copters are purchased online or in big-box stores.
Max Bandy owns the Valley Hobby Shop that many local fliers patronize and operates an RC field in Prescott Valley.
"We try to find out what they're going to do with (a quad-copter). Are they going to use it as a camera platform or just as a toy to fly around?" he said. "And then we pretty much direct them to the laws that pertain to them," although those laws seem to "change daily."
Bandy tries to keep the little copters out of the hands of people who want to do things that the FAA doesn't permit.
"I've actually refused to sell a few of them," he said, "because of what they wanted to do with them. I just knew it wasn't going to be good for the industry or for them."
The Academy of Model Aeronautics has begun outreach programs using manufacturers and retailers to get the word out on safe and legal flying.
"For nearly 80 years, our members have safely operated model aircraft through community-based safety guidelines. Our more than 176,000 members know where to fly and where not to fly," AMA Executive Director Dave Mathewson said. "Unfortunately, the same is not always true for the legions of new 'drone' fliers increasingly taking to the skies."
The AMA campaign is known as "Know Before You Fly," and is a pro-active approach to educating the public, but the group also said it supports more FAA enforcement against scofflaws.
"Whether flying a commercial UAS (unmanned aerial system) or a model aircraft, there are rules that prohibit careless and reckless operations," Mathewson said. "We support the FAA taking a more aggressive approach to assessing civil penalties against operators violating those rules."
Follow Scott Orr on Twitter @AZNewsguy. Call him at 928-445-3333 ext. 2038 or 928-642-7705.