A consumer drone crashed and burned, and then caused a wildfire

drone crash causes wildfire in arizona
Some of the damage caused by the wildfire. Coconino National Forest

Consumer drones have been causing problems for air-based firefighters tackling wildfires over the last few years, with a number of rogue operators determined to use their camera-equipped flying machines to capture dramatic footage of burning land.

Earlier this month, however, there was an unusual incident in Arizona where a drone actually caused a wildfire. Local media reports suggest the blaze started accidentally when the drone crashed on a dry patch of land.

The March 6 fire began close to Kendrick Park, about 15 miles north of Flagstaff, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It burned more than 200 acres of forest land but fortunately was contained within a day through the efforts of around 30 firefighters. No injuries or significant property damage was reported.

Law enforcement hasn’t released details about the make of the drone or precisely how the fire started, though it has identified the pilot who flew it, according to the Arizona Daily Sun.

Punishment for causing a wildfire varies, but the apparently accidental nature of this particular incident should give the pilot hope that any penalty won’t be too severe.

The incident appears to be the first reported case of a consumer drone causing a wildfire. And as we mentioned at the top, when it comes to such blazes, the machines are more often in the news for hampering firefighting efforts rather than actually causing a wildfire itself.

The drones pose a risk to manned aircraft tackling the blaze, and in some cases have caused air-based firefighting efforts to be suspended until the drone flies away from the scene or the pilot is caught.

During devastating fires in northern California last October, for example, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant told CNBC that “over the years … this problem [has] become a trend.”

The Federal Aviation Administration warns drone pilots they could face “significant” fines if they disrupt emergency response efforts with their machines.

Officials in Canada, meanwhile, have embraced the technology for wildfire investigations, with the government of Alberta working with drone company Elevated Robotic Services in 2016 to fly the machines over a burned area in the province to assess the damage and determine how the fire started.

Elevated’s quadcopters use regular HD cameras together with infrared and ultraviolet devices to gather images that are later stitched together as part of a so-called “fire mapping” process. The imagery is analyzed and can place the location of a fire’s origin to within 9-meters, a far more focused area than can be achieved using helicopters, which have to fly at a higher altitude for safety as well as to prevent the blades from fanning any remaining flames and causing additional disturbance to the scene.

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