You drones get off my fire

In a very short period of time, the drone has gone from being an expensive and highly specialised tool to an extremely accessible piece of tech that can be obtained and used by basically anyone. You don’t need extensive skills to put together and operate a drone, and they’re not subject to regulations that hamper many other technologies with similar functionalities — they’re especially popular with photographers for the kind of incredible broad scope images and new angles that they provide. Such photography was previously only possible from aircraft, which was both expensive and complicated to arrange.

The result is a really stunning array of diverse photography from all over the world, in some cases showing things from a perspective we never imagined. Of course, it’s also causing hitherto unimagined regulatory and privacy problems — what happens when the paparazzi can approach from a distance, for example, taking advantage of a drone to get overhead shots that are difficult for people to protect themselves from? What about drones threatening or disturbing animal populations, or breaking and being left behind rather than packed out?

Or, as seen in California over the summer, what happens when people use drones in a way that interferes with public safety operations?

California is experiencing an unprecedented drought. I hardly need to hammer this point home because I talk about it regularly and it’s all over the media. The state is a literal tinderbox, filled with dead plant material that could go up at a moment’s notice, and fires can spread rapidly across the dry ground; everything is dying, and it’s turning into brittle, dry fodder for fires. That includes plants in state parks and other regions that were subjected to decades of bad forest management that now make them especially vulnerable to fires.

Earlier this year, I considered whether I should dig a firebreak around my house, but then I realised that I didn’t need to because the grass on our property is so dry that it was crumbling away to nothing, leaving dirt behind. My entire house was surrounded by a huge, gopher hole-infested fire trench. And, of course, in a serious fire it would be easy for flames to jump through the canopy and over to my house, groundcover be damned. Given that cold calculation, I went back to sitting on the chaise and chugging iced tea.

But statewide, fires became a growing problem, as they do every summer. The sun loomed ominous and angry, orange-red on the horizon at dusk, surrounded by stunning sunsets that would have been pretty if you didn’t know what they symbolised. The air grew tight and hard to breathe for those of us with delicate respiratory systems. Evacuations occurred on a regular basis as officials moved to get people out of the way of fast-moving fires. Cars caught fire on the freeway. California’s fires are iconic not just because they are extreme (other states also have severe wildfires), but because the state is heavily populated, and many of the state’s terrible fires take place near populated areas, because people want to live where it is pretty, and trees are pretty.

Fire photography has always been popular in California, but now, we have a new dimension with the ability to get close to a fire with a drone. Photographers no longer need to risk their lives to get some shots, and they have the advantage of entirely new angles and dynamics to explore — suddenly, fires open a world of artistic possibility. While they are horrific, photographers and documentarians get an insight into them that wasn’t possible before. The flip side, of course, is that the equipment they use forces actual firefighting aircraft to stay grounded, because it’s not safe to fly when drones are flying and you don’t know where they are.

Such aircraft are critical. Some deliver fire suppressants to prevent fires from spreading, while others are delivery methods for firejumpers, who play an important role in fire control. We need to be able to deploy them when needed, and their pilots need to be confident that there won’t be drones in their area. Yet, thanks to regulation, there was nothing to tell drone pilots that they couldn’t fly around fires — so they went ahead and did it. Even, in some cases, after being told that it endangered fire crews and pilots and created an increased fire risk by making it more difficult to fight fires.

The issue raised considerable discussion in California’s media as well as at agencies tasked with addressing issues like this, and for me it generated some interesting questions. If there was a fire by my house and I saw a drone, I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot it down  — or, at the very least, to report it to fire agencies so they’d be aware and could make a decision about what to do. It stands to reason that fire agencies should be doing the same, as they pose a public safety risk, and people who choose to endanger their property by flying it directly into fires are clearly willing to take some financial risks when it comes to their equipment. It’s one of the cases where as a utilitarian, I fall back on my argument that the good of the many is worth the inconvenience of a few.

If a drone allows a single house to burn, it’s a problem. But the repeated uses of drones over California cost far more damage than that, illustrating the pure selfishness with which many people operate. Because who cares about a wildfire when you could be getting a great shot, right?

Image: Gonna See Me Some Drones at Pinkpop, Alfred Grupstra, Flickr