As firefighters battled a nine-hectare blaze in pine forestry near Nelson and a large industrial rubbish fire in Auckland yesterday, they faced a new adversary from the skies — drones.
Helicopters cannot fly when drones are present, impeding firefighting efforts in incidents which Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) say are becoming “more prevalent”.
Seven helicopters were grounded last night for half an hour at a fire in Lee Valley, Nelson, after a drone was spotted in the area.
This was a “hindrance” for crews, said FENZ district commander Grant Haywood.
“It makes it unsafe for our crews and we just don’t want it to happen.”
He said that drones are annoying for crews and that it can cause them to lose some advantage.
“The moment we get wind that there is a drone operating, we have to think about the safety of our pilots as well as our firefighters, and until we can eliminate that risk, we have to stop operations.”
The same occurred at the scene of a large industrial rubbish fire in Auckland’s Onehunga, said FENZ Auckland City assistant area commander Mike Manning.
“We had private drones that were being flown by some civilians over the fire.”
Two helicopters were used as part of the tactical operation which had to be immediately grounded due to safety concerns.
“You can imagine, a drone is very small and a helicopter is very large, and a drone versus a helicopter could be quite catastrophic,” Manning said.
“If they put a drone in the air in the vicinity of the emergency, it can really impede our operations.”
Chris Webb, a resident evacuated from one of 11 homes near the Lee Valley fire, said there was always an idiot.
“Well, it’s the old classic… some idiot wants to take a photo to put on Facebook. They’ve got their own drones and they know how to use them, and they’re standing down thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, for what?”
A Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) spokesperson said that unauthorised flying of drones at fire scenes creates a danger to any aircraft deployed in support of the firefighting efforts.
“The CAA asks drone operators to act responsibly and put the safety of the firefighters, and the pilots of those aircraft carrying out firefighting activities first by not flying their drones during these sorts of emergencies.”