Rogue drone hampers fire-fighting efforts in New Zealand

Over 100 firefighters, 28 fire engines, fourteen helicopters, two planes, as well as rescue workers were still battling strong winds yesterday to put out the fire that broke out in the Port Hills in Christchurch, New Zealand, last Wednesday.

And it was exactly at this time, in this high-pressure environment where over 100 families were in danger of losing their property; that one genius chose to fly their hobby drone into the area, forcing all the helicopters that were working to put out the fire onto the ground.

Now the local police aviation authorities have been roped in to investigate the source and pilot of this dangerous nuisance that had fire helicopters out of commission for over an hour, while the fire still burned in the hills.

Media reports from New Zealand say Canterbury Police were keen to find the pilot of the private drone flying near the Port Hills fire scene; when authorities have expressly ordered private drones not to fly within four kilometres of any aircraft taking off or landing.

“That actually brings our firefighting capability down with the helicopters having to go down,” said Canterbury Police Inspector Ash Tabb.

“Those pilots are working incredibly hard in a very technical role and that’s the last thing they need.

“For the members of the public, if you do see a drone in the air, please bring 111 immediately.”

It is not that drones are bad for fire scenes, no. When operated legally, drone technology can give fire crews a leg up on intelligence on how a fire is progressing, which areas are hot and need immediate attention, search and rescue missions; and other important things like that.

Actually, the Fire and Emergency New Zealand agency (FENZ) has been deploying the drones over night to map the fire ground and help identify any hotspots for fire crews to work on during the day.

But they were not doing it during the day, because then, they needed the help of the aerial fire helicopters to supplement the ground efforts in full.

FENZ Incident Controller Steve Kennedy told the media in New Zealand that any drone that was flying near the fire area during the day did not belong to his organisation.

Kennedy added that the private drone being flown in the area was a huge safety risk for fire crews, and was probably one of the biggest risks they had faced at the Port Hills to date. He said he was unsure of the exact amount of time helicopters were grounded for, but it was likely from 45 minutes to an hour.

FENZ drones were scheduled to be flying again last night from 9PM, he said.

Using thermal imaging cameras, the drones had mapped 60 areas that we need to be working on, with 35 of those on the perimeter of the fire.

“We’re putting all our resources into those hotspots, and especially in some areas that could be problematic,” Kennedy said, adding that firefighters were trying to extinguish a lot of the hotspots before the expected wind change in the evening.

The cause of the fire has not been established yet and investigation are still underway, with authorities asking for anybody with information to come forward.

Residents in the affected area are slowly trickling back after being evacuated last Wednesday, but police have warned people to stay away from the immediate vicinity of the fire.

There had been several people attempting to access walking tracks in the area, according to Tabb, putting themselves and emergency services at risk.

“We’re saying to the community, it’s just for a short period of time, can we just keep out of the area,” he pleaded.

“It makes it easier for firefighters and makes it easier for the police and all the other agencies just to get on with trying to reduce the risk to the community.”

It is dangerous for drones to fly within the same space as manned planes because there is serious danger of the two colliding. With the increased popularity of drones, the lack of regulation and control over drone usage has led to a rise in incidents where drones have come dangerously close to planes, putting the safety of passengers and crew at risk.

Drones can also interfere with the communication and navigation systems of planes, which can lead to accidents. This is because drones operate on the same frequency as planes, and when they come too close to planes, they can cause interference.


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