State officials are warning drone pilots to fly a safe distance from firefighting airspace, saying the unmanned vehicles have interfered with “critical” operations a half-dozen times so far this year.

“The danger of flying drones near wildfires cannot be overstated,” Jake Sjolund, chief of tactical air operations for the state agency, said Friday. “Such actions jeopardize lives and have immediate consequences for firefighting agencies’ response efforts.”

The Federal Aviation Administration regularly implements Temporary Flight Restrictions around wildfire areas to protect the safety of aircraft participating in firefighting operations. All aircraft, including drones, are explicitly prohibited from entering these restricted areas unless they are operated by an agency directly involved in wildfire suppression efforts.

Even when a TFR is not in effect, drone pilots are strongly urged to avoid flying near wildfires as it is considered a crime to interfere with firefighting operations.

When drones cross into wildfire areas, firefighting agencies temporarily suspend air support take-off to prevent accidents. The grounding of aerial support may lead to wildfires expanding, and can put lives at further risk, officials said.

Those who pilot drones without authorization over wildfire areas can face legal action and fines up to $20,000.

–City News Service