BY BETHANY LINDSAY, VANCOUVER SUN
OLIVER, B.C. — The intrusion of a small drone into the airspace above an uncontained wildfire near Oliver grounded the entire fleet of aircraft working on the blaze for most of Sunday afternoon.
Eight helicopters and an air tanker team were all put out of action when the drone flew close to the Testalinden Creek fire at about 12:45 p.m. Sunday.
It took about five hours for crews got confirmation that it was safe to fly again.
“You can’t even imagine” how frustrating this is, fire information officer Noelle Kekula said during the delay.
“The fire is active and our No. 1 objective is to protect (homes). This is incredibly serious.”
Without “helicopters bucketing places,” members of the Oliver district fire department were forced to “climb the hillsides with hoses in their hands,” said deputy fire chief Bob Graham.
It meant “we had to go out and protect more of the area. The terrain is very steep and rocky and it’s difficult to access some of the spots.”
The RCMP worked to find the drone late Sunday afternoon, but had not found it or its operator.
The airspace over any active wildfire is automatically considered restricted, and Transport Canada regulations make it illegal to fly within five nautical miles to either side of the flames or less than 3,000 feet above it.
Violations can result in a fine of up to $1,000 for individuals or $5,000 for a corporation.
This marks the second time this year that an unmanned aircraft has interfered with crews fighting wildfires; a drone hovering around the Westside Road blaze near Kelowna earlier this summer shut down air operations there as well. The only other previous case of a drone flying too close to a wildfire in B.C. happened last summer in the Okanagan.
The most recent drone was a significant nuisance to firefighters in Oliver, who had yet to make any progress on containing the 15 square-kilometre fire. .
Incidents involving recreational drones interfering with planes and helicopters have been on the rise in recent years.
Earlier this month, a drone narrowly missed a seaplane as it landed on the Fraser River at Vancouver International Airport. The same week, a Cessna 172 flying over Stanley Park reported a drone buzzing around underneath it.
By August 6, 19 incidents involving drones had been reported to Transport Canada in 2015.
A recreational pilot operating a drone weighing under 35 kilograms doesn’t require either a licence or a special permit to fly but must follow a list of Transport Canada safety guidelines. Commercial operators, on the other hand, need a special flight operations certificate that includes restrictions on things like altitude and minimum distances from airports.
Some observers are calling for Transport Canada to crack down on recreational drone users.
“Public awareness and enforcement is lacking,” said Ernie Zeisman, president of a drone-training outfit in the B.C. Interior. “They need to begin clamping down.”
Transport Canada is holding consultations about possible regulations for recreational drone users. Some of the proposed amendments include minimum age requirements, knowledge tests, aircraft marking and registration, and pilot permits for some operators.
With files from The Canadian Press and Gordon Hoekstra and Joanne Lee-Young