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Officials want to keep drones away from Colorado wildfires. But how do you halt something you can’t see?

Last year, there were 26 known drone incursions over wildfires in the U.S., six of which happened in Colorado

A firefighting plane drops flame retardant on the Silver Creek Fire near Kremmling last year. (Handout)
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State lawmakers and wildfire officials in Colorado have been working frantically to educate the public about the dangers of flying drones near wildland blazes and their potential to down a firefighting aircraft.

There have been social media campaigns and news releases. Legislation was even passed last year making it illegal.

But how do you enforce that law and keep firefighting pilots safe if you don’t know where the drones are?

A group of legislators at the Colorado capitol this year are shepherding a measure through the legislature aiming to let state firefighters test technology that can detect drones. Right now, the only way officials know when a drone is in the sky over a wildfire is if they see one.

“The challenge that drones present to us is that they are small,” said Ben Miller, who leads the center of excellence within the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “Obviously a small, say, one foot by one wide object flying in the sky is very hard to see.”

Miller says that poses two challenges: The potential for false alarms and the chance that firefighters aren’t spotting all of the unmanned aerial devices that are buzzing in the skies above a fire.

The fear is that a drone could down a firefighting plane.

Last year, there were 26 known drone incursions over wildfires in the U.S. — what Miller called a “really at an alarming rate.” Six of those happened in Colorado, meaning the state the second-most incidents in the nation.

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There are also broader, global conversations happening on how to track drones after a suspected drone spotting caused disruption over several days at London’s Gatwick Airport after flights were grounded to prevent a collision. That’s not to say drones can’t be used for good during wildfires and other emergencies — they have proven useful when in the hands of authorities — but their growing use among the public is leading to anxiety about increased conflicts.

When a drone is spotted over a wildfire, firefighting planes are immediately grounded. That can mean crucial time to douse flames in water or fire retardant is lost.

Senate Bill 20 would allocate $350,000 to the state’s fire prevention and control department to study two drone-spotting technologies. One can track the WiFi signal of a drone and the other is an advanced radar system so sensitive it picks up signals from a drone’s propeller blades.

Fire scientists would then decide which system works best and measure whether it can be used in a real-life scenario.

“It gives them more a 360-degree (view of the airspace),” said state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation.

The measure cleared its first committee hearing Monday in the Senate with unanimous support.

“When you take those aircraft off of the scene, you’re increasing the cost of fighting fire,” said Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican who is also sponsoring the legislation. “So I know we’re spending money here, but I think we’ll (all find) we can actually save money by implementing this program.”

Updated at 5 p.m. on Jan. 15, 2019: This story has been updated to clarify the potential of a drone to down a firefighting airplane.


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