Drones pose new risks for firefighters battling California wildfires

TEHAMA COUNTY, Calif. -- Dozens of wildfires are burning in the West again Tuesday. In Northern California, the "Jerusalem fire" more than doubled in size to 12,000 acres overnight before merging with another fire.

Also more than doubling, the number of encounters between firefighting aircraft and drones. It happened 13 times this year compared to four last year.

California wildfire challenging firefighters

As photographer Jeff Hall guided his drone into the air in Northern California, he captured images of the huge plume of smoke rising from a growing wildfire.

As dangerous as wildfires can be, drone pilots have been drawn to them. At least 13 times this year firefighters have reported seeing drones flying near major fires.

For pilots of firefighting aircraft, drones have become another hazard in an already risky business. Imagine suddenly seeing a drone heading straight at your helicopter.

Pilot Jason Thrasher had a near miss with a drone on a fire last year. He says even though a drone is just a few pounds, and a helicopter is much bigger, it can still do harm.

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"If a drone like that were to go into a tail rotor or a main rotor system, it could have catastrophic consequences," he said.

California Fire has launched a campaign urging drone pilots to stay away. And there are growing demands for drone regulations. NASA is developing an Air Traffic Control system for a day when drones are as common as cars.

"There could be a future where every home could have a drone and every home could serve as airport," said NASA Scientist Parimal Kopardekar.

The Age of Megafires

Sean Suitter's company Micro Avionics has developed technology that could make every drone identifiable.

"You would know miles in advance that it was approaching," said Suitter. "And who it belonged to."

For now, drones operate largely without controls, but firefighters in upstate New York found a way to tell a drone pilot he wasn't welcomed by spraying water at his drone.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.