Warning for drone users: Flying near brush fires, rescues is illegal, dangerous

Firefighters are mopping up hot spots from a brush fire in Hawaii Kai.

The fire sparked Wednesday and burned roughly 20 acres.

On Thursday morning, the Honolulu Fire Department’s helicopter made water drops, but fire officials say just as the chopper lifted off, they spotted a drone flying over homes.

It was only up for a short amount of time, but HFD wants to remind people that air space near fires or rescues is restricted.

The Federal Aviation Administration says it sees a number of cases nationwide every year in which drones interfere with brush fire operations.

Here in Hawaii, fire officials say they have seen an increase in drone activity.

If drone users aren’t careful, they could delay HFD’s missions and even put the public in danger.

“For any HFD operations, drones are supposed to be landed and not flown around the operations, because you never know if we are going to bring Air One in,” said Battalion Chief Geoffrey Chang. “Everyone wants to get a good shot of the action, but that does pose a safety hazard for all of us.”

Fire officials say if there is a drone hovering nearby, Air One won’t take off, which delays the emergency response.

“If there is a collision, it could cause a malfunction in the aircraft. All our firefighters and our pilot in the aircraft are in jeopardy, and also whoever is under the helicopter if it does have to land or crash on the ground,” said Chang.

Experts say drones can fly as high as 400 feet, “but when certain rescue operations are taking place, aircraft can fly as low as necessary. That is why you are not supposed to fly drones in the same areas,” explained Alex Volobuev, drone pilot and instructor at Hawaii Drone Academy.

“Most times, if the person using the drone is unaware that we are operating in the area, we can go up to them. They almost always will just land their drone and go away,” said Chang.

Drone users who do not follow the law can be fined anywhere from $1,400 to $32,000.  They can even face criminal charges.

Anytime you buy a drone, information of where you can and cannot fly is provided, but Volobuev says there can never be enough information.

“As a drone community, we have to make every possible step to do community outreach and explain to people, this is the new industry and we have to be extremely cautious,” he said.

Fire officials say the person flying the drone Thursday morning saw Air One and landed his drone immediately.

Click here for more information from the FAA on Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

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