This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The Return of the Drones.
It's a sequel crews fighting the stubborn, month-old Saddle wildfire dreaded, and one that after two more incidents this past weekend renewed law enforcement's hunt for the pilots of the remote-control aircraft.
Sunday night marked the fifth illegal drone intrusion over the air-traffic exclusion zone above the still-uncontrolled blaze that has burned nearly 2,300 acres in southwestern Utah's Dixie National Forest. The 6:30 p.m. incident again took air tankers and helicopters out of the smoky skies, where their presence has been critical to halting the fire's spread toward hundreds of homes in Pine Valley, about 25 miles north of St. George.
"[Drones] continue to be a problem," said Megan Saylors, fire information officer. "Each time a drone is sighted in the fire area, all air operations are grounded until it is determined safe to fly again. ... If you fly, we can't, and the safety of our firefighters is greatly affected."
Because of the steep, rugged and inaccessible terrain on and around Saddle Mountain, the burden of fighting the fire has been borne by fire-retardant- and water-laden aircraft flying regular missions along the perimeter of the blaze, and over flare-ups and hot spots.
A 5-mile flight-restriction zone has existed over the Saddle Fire since shortly after it was sparked by lightning on June 13. Authorities, including Gov. Gary Herbert, have repeatedly warned drone pilots they face state and federal charges, from misdemeanors to felonies along with hefty fines (up to $275,000) and years of jail or prison time if caught and convicted for flying over the fire.
Saylors urged drone operators to check for restrictions before they send their aircraft aloft by visiting the http://www.knowbeforeyoufly.org website.
At about 7 p.m. Friday, another drone had similarly forced aerial firefighting to stop. The Washington County Sheriff's Office, which already had offered a $1,000 reward for tips on one of the earlier drone intrusions, asks that anyone with information call 435-634-5734.
Meanwhile, the Washington County Sheriff's Office has partially lifted the voluntary evacuation order for Pine Valley, specifically for some properties at the top of Lloyd Canyon, according to a news release. Spots at Pine Valley Recreation Area also are reopening, though "trails in the immediate fire area will remain closed to the public."
The fire continues to grow, having reached 2,295 acres and 45 percent containment as of Monday night. However, thanks to continued missions that have dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of fire retardant and water on the flames, the blaze has largely fed on previously missed patches of conifer, undergrowth and brush within its perimeter.