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Rural Fire Service calls to ban drones from bushfire areas

Amateur drone pilots are being warned to avoid bushfire areas with the Rural Fire Service saying the threat of drone hazards could force fire fighters to down their own aircraft.

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Image by Don McCullough, CC BY 2.0

With bushfire season starting in earnest in Australia, the NSW Rural Fire Service is warning that piloting drones in bushfire areas is a major safety risk that has the potential to ground an entire fleet of fire-fighting helicopters.

NSW RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said the increased availability of drones and the greater number of hobbyists using the devices could lead to significant issues in bushfire areas.

Speaking to ABC News Radio, Commissioner Rogers said the issues arise when drones enter environments where there is "a lot of smoke, flames, a lot of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft flying in and out" making the addition of rogue drones a serious hazard.

"We have very tight controls over that airspace because of the hazards, in a limited visibility environment, of collision," he said. "So there's a lot of protocols, and if you introduce something that we don't even know anything about, flying around, then obviously it's a recipe for disaster."

Commissioner Rogers also warned that drone use could require the downing of a whole fleet of aircraft whose primary purpose it is to water bomb fire areas and monitor conditions.

"If there are drones flying in the area that we don't exactly know where they are or how many, then potentially the aircraft would have to put down," he said.

"Where there's a fire on the outskirts of an urban area anywhere in Australia that aircraft are helping to slow the fire as it's approaching homes, then you could be putting people's homes and lives at risk by having these things that cause the sudden loss of those aircraft."

While the RFS acknowledges that bushfires can develop and move very quickly, making it difficult to demarcate and police exclusion zones, Commissioner Rogers said the problem required attention, adding that Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority was already well aware of the issue.

In late 2013, CASA issued a warning about drone use after reviewing footage of unmanned drones flying in the skies above the Lithgow bushfires, warning that the remotely piloted aircraft were in breach of CASA regulations.

CASA has been reviewing safety regulations covering the use of drones since mid-2014 and says it will "carefully consider any suggestions from rural fire services" in relation to drone safety around bushfires.

"Right now CASA is warning anyone who flies a drone for recreation to avoid active bushfire areas at all times," a CASA spokesperson told CNET. "There is a risk of a mid air collision with a fire fighting aircraft, which could cause an accident.

"There is also the likelihood that fire authorities will ground all their fire fighting aircraft when a drone enters a bushfire area to avoid a mid air collision. This will severly hamper fire fighting efforts, putting people and property potentially at risk. Drones and bushfires do not mix."