Earlier this week, a 16-inch-by-16-inch, battery-operated hobby drone crashed in Arizona’s Coconino National Forest, several miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona. The drone caught fire when it crashed, igniting a grassland area called Kendrick Park. The Kendrick fire spread more than 300 acres, but it was contained by 30 firefighters within the day.
Coconino National Forest spokesperson George Jozens told Ars on Friday that it was unclear what kind of drone caused the crash, but the pilot had been identified and was charged with starting a wildfire by Forest Services Region 3 Law Enforcement. Ars contacted that department for comment, but we have not yet received a response. Penalties for starting a wildfire can range from fines to community service to jail time.
Drone use and wilderness areas have been in conflict in recent years. Drones have grounded fire-fighting planes and helicopters, which usually fly low to the forest. Having a drone come in contact with propellers could endanger a firefighter’s life. Lawmakers have pushed to criminalize flying drones in wildfire areas because grounded aircraft can cost cash-strapped fire-fighting departments thousands of dollars as fires burn out of control. At the same time, law enforcement has happily embraced drones for a variety of purposes.
However, this is one of the few instances where a drone crash caused the wildfire in question. A similar incident happened last summer, when the US Air Force accidentally crashed an unmanned aircraft with a 130-foot wingspan—an RQ-4 Global Hawk—in the Inyo County National Forest just outside of Lone Pine, California. That crash started a small wildfire.
AZ Central reported that the Kendrick fire took place in an area that had received adequate moisture over the winter, but grassy fields in the region are still highly flammable even in March.
Jozens told Ars that it’s legal to fly a drone in the National Forest as long as the pilot doesn’t take off or land in a wilderness area and as long as there are no wildfires in the area. Drone pilots must also adhere to FAA rules.