Drones prove both a blessing and a curse

Technology is proving to be a double-edged sword for those combatting the fires consuming large swaths of the province’s forests

Technology is proving to be a double-edged sword for those combatting the fires consuming large swaths of the province’s forests.

The B.C. Wildfire Service had to ground eight helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft for three hours while battling fires around Oliver Sunday, due to an unauthorized drone flying in the area.

Forests Minister Steve Thomson said the frustration was clearly evident on the faces of the pilots and other attack crews.

“Ticked off would probably be too mild a term to talk about their reaction,” he said. “It’s really something that is just not acceptable.”

While it would seem unnecessary to have to remind people that active fire scenes are not the appropriate place for flying drones, unfortunately that is not the case. Transport Canada regulations make it illegal to fly within five nautical miles of any active wildfire or less than 3,000 feet above it, with violations carrying a fine of up to $1,000 for individuals. Last weekend marked the second time this year that an unmanned aircraft has interfered with crews fighting wildfires. Perhaps the sanctions need to be strengthened to drive home the point that situations that threaten life and property are not the place to be trying out your new toy.

But all unmanned aerial vehicles are not equal. Earlier this month, a commercial operator was able to use his drone to chart a safe escape route for emergency responders called to the rescue of a fallen hiker on Mount Finlayson.

The incident shows how the unmanned vehicles can be a critical piece of equipment to improve the safety for accident victims and the crews that put their lives on the line to keep us all safe.

With wildfires becoming a common part of summers in British Columbia, we would expect to see further use of drones helping crews get a lay of the land. We can only hope the unauthorized use of the unmanned vehicles will not become a common interruption for fire crews on the front lines.