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Drones hinder firefighting operations and endanger air crews


As the efforts of thousands of firefighters battling flames across New Mexico are complicated by fierce winds and drought, officials say there is another factor slowing their work: drones.

Air attacks on the northwest end of the Cerro Pelado Fire in the Jemez Mountains were grounded for about an hour Saturday when Kevin Brown, air operations branch director with the U.S. Forest Service, said an airplane’s crew spotted a drone hovering only about 30 feet away.

“Drones are small aircraft,” Brown said. “But most airplanes and helicopters are not designed to survive any sort of an impact.”

Brown said five helicopters had to stop dropping water on the fire until the air space, which is under a Temporary Flight Restriction, was cleared. The plane’s crew were unable to locate the drone again and its operator remains unknown.

Brown said this was the second time this has happened and a third the very next day remains unconfirmed. The first was a piloted plane.

He said local law enforcement is supporting an investigation into the incident by canvassing the area, but that fire crews lack the technology to locate drones in the airspace and rely on seeing the aircrafts and their operators with their own eyes.

“We’re not looking to punish these individuals,” Brown said of those flying in the restricted airspace when caught. “We really want to just educate and get the word out.”

That said, it is a federal crime that the Forest Service warned in a news release this week could result in as much as a year in prison and a fine of up to $20,000.

Find a full list of active Temporary Flight Restrictions in New Mexico, including maps and coordinates, on the Federal Aviation Administration’s website.  

The Cerro Pelado Fire is over 70% contained as of Tuesday, May 17, and both Los Alamos County and Los Alamos National Laboratory have been moved back from the "set" to the "ready" status of evacuation preparedness.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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