A man accused of flying a drone over a major Arizona wildfire posted the aerial photos on his website, authorities said Saturday, leading to his arrest for hampering firefighting efforts against the stubborn blaze menacing an area where 19 firefighters were killed four years ago.
The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office said deputies tracked down Gene Alan Carpenter, 54, of Prescott Valley on Friday after spotting a man near a white van flying the drone within hours of the fire being reported last weekend and throughout the week.
Prior contact with Carpenter and photos found on his website showing drone views were used to identify him, authorities said. His drone was seized during his arrest.
The sheriff’s office in a press release said Carpenter recklessly endangered 14 aircraft and fire crews in the air and on the ground “with a substantial risk of imminent death or physical injury by flying an unmanned drone aircraft in closed airspace above an active fire area.”
Jail records show Carpenter was being held on 14 counts of felony endangerment and one misdemeanor count of unlawful operation of an unmanned aircraft. It’s unclear if he has an attorney.
Carpenter’s bond was set Saturday at $25,000 and he’s expected in court July 6.
Authorities said someone first encountered Carpenter flying the drone near the Mount Union Lookout tower on June 24, about three hours after the fire was first reported.
The wildfire has been burning in the dense Prescott National Forest and around Prescott, a mountain city about 100 miles north of Phoenix that draws a mix of desert dwellers escaping the heat, retirees and visitors.
More than 1,200 firefighters have seen action battling the blaze that has charred 40 square miles. The fire has also closed a major road and created a huge plume of smoke over the same area devastated by a blaze in 2013 that killed 19 members of an elite firefighting crew.
The current fire was 44 percent contained, prompting authorities to lift evacuation orders for some nearby communities, though multiple other areas remained under mandatory evacuation. Thousands of people have been forced out of their homes.
The sheriff’s office said an Air Attack Pilot supervisor encountered the drone on Wednesday, and it started circling his plane when the official tried to see where the drone was coming from.
Authorities immediately cleared the airspace, as the intrusion could have caused a catastrophic collision by breaking an aircraft windshield or getting caught up in a plane’s mechanics. Planes were grounded for nearly an hour, which meant unprotected firefighters on the ground also had to back off from their work.
Drones interfering with wildfire efforts have become a growing problem, with sightings noted in states from California to Washington and Minnesota. Lawmakers have called for more oversight and awareness as the consumer technology gets cheaper and more accessible.
Federal Aviation Administration guidelines urge drone hobbyists to fly no higher than 400 feet, stay clear of stadiums and people, and avoid flying within five miles of airports. During wildfires and other emergencies, the FAA imposes temporary restrictions.
Authorities in Arizona intend to meet with federal officials on Monday about temporary flight restrictions related to the wildfire. The FAA, citing the ongoing investigation, declined to comment on the case.