Drone sightings hamper Utah wildfire suppression efforts

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CEDAR CITY — Despite several highly publicized warnings from fire officials and state lawmakers about the dangers of drones in a wildfire area, aerial operations were grounded for several hours Sunday at three of Utah's wildfires because of a drone sighting.

All aircraft working the Aspen, Pine Canyon and Saddle fires were grounded after drones were spotted in the area, said U.S. Forest Service assistant regional fire training specialist Kim Osborn.

Officials working the Saddle fire reported on Sunday two incidents of drone sightings that resulted in aerial operations being stopped.

Although no fire retardant drops were scheduled for Sunday for the Aspen fire, located about 13 miles southwest of Cedar City, Osborn said the three helicopters, five single engine air tankers, and three heavy air tankers assigned to the fire were all grounded from about 10:30 a.m. until 2 p.m.

"It makes it difficult for them to complete the mission. Or depending on the fire situation and what's going on, it could be a critical moment in getting water to a certain area or protecting a house, or firefighters are in bad place," Osborn said of the dangers of having drones in a wildfire area.

"It causes a lot of problems when it happens."

Drones have become such a problem in wildfire areas that the Utah Legislature passed HB126, which became law last month. The law makes it a misdemeanor to fly unmanned aerial vehicles in a prohibited area, and a felony if a drone collides with firefighting equipment or causes a crash. Severe federal penalties are also possible.

The 355-acre lightning-caused fire that has been burning since Wednesday was 85 percent contained Sunday night. Other than drones, she said high winds were presenting the greatest challenge for firefighters.

One firefighter suffered a head injury in a fall while batting the Aspen Fire last week. Osborn said he has since been released from the hospital and was expected to make a full recovery.

Good progress was also reported at two other nearby lightning-caused fires.

• The Pine Canyon Fire, about 2 miles south of the Aspen Fire, had burned 105 acres and was declared 100 percent contained by Sunday night. Osborn said crews continued to mop up hot spots and were expected to start releasing resources to go to other fires.

"Things are going really well. We've made a lot of good progress," she said.

The Pine Canyon Fire was being handled jointly with the Aspen Fire, Osborn said, so the aerial grounding also affected that fire.

• The 318-acre Saddle Fire, located about 2 1Ž2 miles south of Pine Valley, Washington County, was in a steep, rocky area of Saddle Mountain as of Sunday afternoon. Fire officials said it is in an area not safe for firefighters to attack, so they were preparing for it to move over the ridge.

“We had a community meeting last night and were able to explain this from the start of the fire to our plan of attack,” Chris Henrie, the Saddle Fire incident commander, said Sunday. “I feel like we are all on the same page and are ready for the next step.”

Firefighters have been clearing roads and trails that will double as fire breaks, as well as assisting Pine Valley residents in making their homes more defensible against the fire. As of late Sunday, no structures were threatened.

Air tankers dropped nearly 17,000 gallons of retardant on the fire Sunday. As of Sunday night, the fire was at zero percent containment.

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Pat Reavy


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