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14 Firefighting Aircraft Grounded by Drone, Operator Faces 14 Felony Charges

Fire Story Cover Drone

Drone operator charged with 14 felony counts after unauthorized drone operations cause grounding of aircraft providing aerial firefighting support for large fire in Yavapai County, Arizona.

Gene Alan Carpenter, 54, of Prescott Valley, AZ – Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office Photo

While it is no secret that firefighting can be a dangerous profession throughout the many roles associated within the career field. Crews fighting fire from the air were last week reminded of how new technology can add risk to everyone involved with fire suppression operations. The incident in question occurring in Yavapai County, Arizona, a location that is still on the minds of firefighters all across the nation. It was in Yavapai County that on June 30th, 2013, 19 City of Prescott firefighters, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, made the ultimate sacrifice as they were overrun fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Now, four years later almost to the day, operations during the Goodwin Fire, that started just 14 miles south of Prescott saw 14 firefighting aircraft grounded, unable to launch to assist ground based firefighting operations from the air for over an hour due to a drone being operated illegally in the fire’s airspace. The Goodwin fire began June 24th 2017, and has consumed more than 28,516 acres at the time of this report. The fire is currently scheduled to transition to a Type 4 fire management team on Monday, July 10th 2017.

A drone was witnessed between June 24th and 28th operating near the Goodwin Fire, Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dwight D’Evelyn said in a press release. One air attack pilot noted a drone flying at his altitude before it began circling his aircraft. This incident prompted an hour long grounding of all firefighting aircraft and the subsequent halt of all ground based fire attack. The decision to halt ground based fire attack operations made as the risk to the ground crews was also high without support and protection of aerial firefighting support.

Drone over Goodwin Fire – from Carpenter’s website (Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office Photo)

Police  arrested Gene Alan Carpenter, 54, of Prescott Valley on Friday July 7th after a man matching his description was caught operating a drone near a white van. Police used photos from the drone that Carpenter had uploaded to his website throughout the week to help identify him. During his arrest, police confiscated the drone for use as evidence. Carpenter is now facing 14 felony counts of endangerment, one for each aircraft grounded after his drone circled the Air Attack aircraft.

On June 24th, just before 7PM, witnesses reported seeing a male subject flying a drone while standing near a white van on East Portland Rd, near the Mount Union Lookout tower. Statements from US Forest Service personnel inside a nearby tower matched those eye witness statements. Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dwight D’Evelyn stated during a press release that it should be noted that the aerial firefighting aircraft were in the air only 30 minutes after the initial report of the fire.

Drone over lookout tower – from Carpenter’s website (Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office Photo)
U.S. Forest ServicePrescott National Forest Photo

On June 30, 2017, a YCSO detective spoke with an Air Attack Pilot supervisor for the Goodwin Fire. The supervisor stated that on June 28, 2017, his job was to maintain control of all the aircraft in the area and to assist the air tankers fighting the Goodwin Fire. When a drone intruded into the Goodwin fire on that date, there were 14 aircraft in the area including 5 helicopters, 3 large air tankers (DC-10), and 5 heavy air tankers flying. The supervisor told detectives he spotted the drone at his altitude and when he tried to see where it was coming from, the drone started to circle the plane. Because of this intrusion, the airspace had to be immediately cleared due to the danger the drone posed to aircraft. As a result of aircraft leaving the area during a fire fighting mission, ground crews were left unprotected which required them to disengage from the fire. Aircraft were grounded for an hour.

Based on the witness information, drone descriptions, and photos obtained from Carpenter’s website showing drone views of the Goodwin Fire, deputies began searching for him. An off-duty YCSO deputy spotted Carpenter’s van on Willow Creek Road in Prescott. He coordinated the response of patrol deputies and Carpenter was stopped. The drone was found in his van and seized according to a Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office statement.

In 2016, Arizona passed SB1449, which makes unmanned flights illegal in areas that interfere with Law Enforcement or Firefighting operations or interferes with the operation of manned aircraft flight.

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