By Tony Davis

Arizona Daily Star

The Federal Aviation Administration decided not to prosecute a person suspected of flying a drone illegally into Bighorn Fire-fighting airspace because it couldn’t prove he or she was the pilot, a spokesman said this week.

The decision illustrates the difficulties in proving identities of those who remotely operate unmanned drones. And the lack of prosecution frustrates both a University of Arizona official involved in studying the wildfire and a private drone operator. While not criticizing the FAA, they said that when a drone operator gets away with illegal behavior, it will embolden others to follow the same course.

“I get that it’s hard (to prove). Some effort should be put into technology to identify the individuals that are invading this airspace at critical times,” said Ben Wilder, director of UA’s Tumamoc Hill Desert Laboratory and an executive producer of a recent webinar series on the Bighorn Fire. “Because it’s proven that if the Forest Service can’t get at their assets at that moment, then the fire gets an upper hand on them. It’s all so time sensitive.”

The presence of at least two drones in the Pusch Ridge area forced firefighters to suspend aerial operations at a crucial stage in the Bighorn Fire in early June on at least two occasions, Forest Service officials said at the time. Those suspensions slowed the service’s ability to battle the blaze just as it was getting underway, authorities have said.

The fire started on about 200 acres on June 5 but spread to 2,500 acres by June 8 after two drone incursions occured, Forest Service officials said at the time. The blaze burned 120,000 acres in the Catalina Mountains by the time the Forest Service declared it fully contained on July 23.

“We conducted a thorough investigation into this incident. However, we were not able to conclusively determine that the suspected drone operator was the pilot” who violated FAA flight restrictions in the wildfire area, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said Thursday in an email to the Star.

“That said, we did counsel the drone pilot, both orally and in writing, about the importance of not flying drones near wildfires and observing any (flight restrictions) that are in place,” he said.

The agency declined to provide the person’s name or gender because it didn’t prosecute.

Gregor declined to elaborate on why the FAA couldn’t prove the drone operator it investigated and interviewed was the one involved in the airspace intrusion.

The aircraft was licensed with the FAA, as legally required, he said.

“Speaking generally, the more concrete evidence we have, the easier it is to put together an enforcement case. Concrete evidence can include photos, videos, eyewitness reports, an admission by a pilot, and data and other records,” Gregor said.

The FAA didn’t specify a date on which this drone violation occurred. But the Forest Service issued news releases saying that two such incidents occured on June 5 — the day the fire was sparked by lightning — and on June 8, a day in which the fire was spreading rapidly.

KVOA-TV reported at the time that a third illegal drone overflight occurred around then. The Forest Service seized two drone aircraft and the cases were referred to the FAA and FBI, the TV station reported.

One drone case was turned over to the Forest Service’s law enforcement office, Coronado National Forest Supervisor Kerwin Dewberry told the Star on Thursday. The service’s public information staff didn’t respond to requests from the Star for more information on that investigation. Previously, two national forest spokeswomen had said drone-related cases had been turned over to the FBI.

Brooke Brennan, an FBI spokeswoman in Phoenix, would not comment on the drone case, saying, “As a matter of course, the FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.”

Dewberry said one drone craft burned up in the wildfire but that he didn’t know what happened to the second one.

Drone intrusions were a real issue during the fire’s early days, shutting down the firefighting “airshow,” said Steve Miranda, a Forest Service aviation staff officer.

“That airshow, if it goes away, it makes it more challenging for firefighters on the ground to be successful. They need that watter. … In May, June and July it was the hottest May, June and July on record,” Miranda said in an Aug. 13 webinar sponsored by the UA’s Arizona Institute for Resilience and Arizona Public Media, among other entities.

Incidents like this “quite rightfully” create a public and press perception that is negative about drones, said Mike Overstreetm a Tucson-area TV producer who uses drones in about 10% of his productions.

“Because of these idiots who go out and do things dangerously, fly over fires, fly at night and hinder law enforcement, it gives the whole genre of drone operations a very negative tone,” Overstreet said. “Whereas, in fact, drones are a very safe way to view things that cannot be viewed in normal circumstances.”

Drones are dangerous because they can fall on people or structures and hurt them, Overstreet said.

“More importantly, they are a hazard to low-flying aircraft, and over a fire is where you have, by design, low-flying aircraft,” he said. “You put a tanker that is flying at 500 feet, and then you have some overzealous drone operator who wants to be at 500 feet. Then the drone becomes dangerous to aircraft. The consequences are unimaginable.

“We really need to find ways to prosecute more of these people who cause problems. The problem is, of course, finding them,” Overstreet said.

It’s quite frustrating but understandable that authorities would have trouble tracking down the drone operator, said Matthew Grossman, a licensed, commercial drone pilot and a private airplane pilot. He is active in issues on Mount Lemmon, where the Bighorn Fire raged.

Drone registration numbers are only required to be posted in such a way that they can be read if the drone is retrieved (usually after a crash). They’re not like a license plate or tail number on a manned aircraft which can be read with binoculars, said Grossman. He is the Mount Lemmon Business Economic Association’s treasurer and a Mount Lemmon Homeowners Association board member.

While “a token prosecution” can be useful in getting the word out to drone operators about their practice’s risks, the best outcome of catching someone violating the firefighting airspace would be to file claims against the operator’s insurance company, he said, to help offset the firefighting costs and losses suffered by businesses evacuated.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at [email protected] or 806-7746. On Twitter@tonydavis987.