During a wildfire, firefighters often attack a blaze from the ground and from the sky — sending in fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to drop water and fire retardant to impede a fire’s progress. If an unauthorized drone flies into an emergency response zone, all that effort must stop.
“The main reason they have to avert those drones is we have no idea what the intention is of the operator,” said Capt. David Laub of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, who said they’ve had cases of drones buzzing just over firefighters’ heads, posing myriad hazards to its personnel and aircraft.
Yet as they pause, the fire continues to rage.
“It continues to burn. It continues to get bigger. It threatens people’s homes, property, the environment, infrastructure — all of it,” Laub said.
With drones now affordable and readily available at big box stores, officials say unauthorized drones have really become a problem in Southern California — especially as human-induced climate change is spurring gigantic wildfires capable of scorching through thousands of acres of parched vegetation ripe for burning as the megadrought in the West drags on.
People want to see what these massive fires look like up close, usually not realizing how disruptive their drone can be.
But through this new partnership, the officials say offending drones are identified and located in about 30 seconds of taking to the air.
“When the detection equipment finds the drone and identifies the operator’s location, we can very rapidly get that information to a ground intercept team who can then go make contact with that drone operator and essentially get them to stop flying that drone,” said James Peaco III, the weapons of mass destruction coordinator for the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.
With a special sensor, the team can set up a boundary as large or as small as desired and get notified if a drone flies into that area, instantly obtaining precise details such as elevation, direction, speed as well as where the drone took off from and where the controller is currently standing.
Teams are spread out around the incident, ready to spring into action if a troublesome drone is identified. They immediately set out to intercept the controller.
“The first thing we do is order them to bring the drone back, explain to him that there’s a wildfire and flying that drone during a wildland fire is actually a federal felony,” Peaco said, adding that violators fall into three categories: clueless, careless and criminal — with the vast majority willing to comply immediately.
“If it’s just clueless or careless, we’ll either issue a citation or even just warn them off and tell them not to do it,” Peaco said. “If they’ve done something very egregious and really interrupted operations or they refuse to comply, then we have federal felony charges that we can apply to the situation.”
But the usefulness of drones is not lost on Los Angeles County Fire. They have a team that uses drones to assist in structure fires and wildland blazes, both for scouting those fires and then zeroing in on hotspots.
“We can do a 360-degree lap around the entire fire. So, you see all four exterior walls, the condition of the roof, where the smoke is coming from and really pinpoint where the fire is without having to put firefighters in harm’s way,” said Capt. Michael Nardone, Los Angeles County Fire’s drone coordinator.
Optimally from 50 to 200 feet away from a fire, a drone can provide several useful data points to help a fire operation chief decide where to send manpower and, alternatively, helping them avoid sending firefighters to unsafe parts of a building.
“I can switch from regular video screen to infrared screen so you can see where the hot spots are in the building,” Nardone said. “We can see pretty much anything and everything we’d like to see.”
In wildland fires, drones are used to see down range and above ridges — places it would be hard to see otherwise, Nardone says. This also saves resources from having to hike into some of these remote locations to determine how the fire is behaving.
In an exclusive demonstration for CNN, Nardone flew a drone equipped with a high-definition camera to find a fire in a structure. As the drone smoothly lifted from one floor to the next, Nardone faced the camera to peer into the building through its windows.
On the screen, a white-hot, amoeba-like blob came into view — a small heat source set for this demo by Laub, who’s tall frame was also picked up by the infrared camera. The drone pegged the temperature of the blaze at more than 300 degrees.
Since in infrared mode the camera was looking at heat signatures, the smoke being emitted didn’t impact the visuals.
But there are limitations. In a structure fire, the type of material the building is made of plays a part.
“You can’t see through a concrete wall so I could have a great fire and I’ll never know it’s there. But if I have a single-family residence with aluminum or wood siding, I’ll probably see it. Same thing with roofs,” Nardone said. “The drone pilot needs to be more than just a pilot; he needs to have a familiarity with what heat signatures will penetrate building material.”
Los Angeles County Fire and the FBI are building out this drone deterrence model and plan to expand their collaborative partnership in Southern California and beyond.
“We developed this from the ground level. We literally had nothing to go from,” Laub said. He and Peaco began working on this program just before the pandemic began. “There’s no one else in the US that’s been doing it this way.”