Drone operator captures striking video of Kentucky wildfires; thousands of acres burned

When the woods near his home in Jackson went up in flames earlier this week, Joshua Sewell had to document it out of pure instinct.

Using a drone capable of filming video in 4K, Sewell took to the skies near his home in the evening — after the Kentucky National Guard concluded its aerial firefighting efforts for the day — to capture footage of the wildfires that have gripped southeastern Kentucky.

Sewell, 33, posted more than four minutes of striking video from Breathitt County on YouTube where it has been viewed more than 1,700 times. Sewell’s drone can fly for 40 minutes on two batteries and has a horizontal range of 2,500 feet.

“I thought it would be a unique perspective,” Sewell said. “It’s been sad to see.”

About 390 Kentucky firefighters and support crews are battling 20 fires across the state, The Associated Press reported Thursday. The fires have burned about 29,000 acres, according to the state's Division of Forestry. AP reported Thursday the figure was 20,000.

The National Guard dropped more than 120,000 gallons of water on the fires last weekend alone. The fires forced Gov. Matt Bevin to issue a state of emergency on Nov. 3.

The federal government sent two helicopters to Kentucky on Thursday to aid in the efforts, Kentucky National Guard Maj. Steve Martin said. There have been 66 burn bans imposed across the state.

Three fire-related arrests have been made in Kentucky, Martin said. The latest arrest was made Wednesday and involved a juvenile on federal land violating the burn ban.

The National Guard has spotted numerous drones near the fires “which could force delays or cease aerial suppression operations, impeding efforts to control and contain the blazes,” Martin said in a news release Wednesday.

The 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade (TAB), based out of Frankfort, spearheaded the wildfire response effort throughout Eastern Kentucky and has noticed a significant increase in drone operations.

“I personally own and enjoy remote-controlled aircraft and greatly appreciate the point of view and visibility they provide,” said Col. Michael Stephens, commander of the 63rd TAB. “We do want the public to see what we are doing and the positive publicity. However, many drone owners may not realize the potential danger that even a small remote aircraft poses to helicopters.”

Sewell said he never flew his drone during the day while firefighting efforts were ongoing.

Drones and wildfires were a flashpoint in California this summer when an unmanned aircraft was seen near a fire north of Sacramento. The drone operator was arrested but “not charged with flying a drone specifically, nor has he been penalized by the Federal Aviation Administration, but rather he was charged with a more general misdemeanor for ‘interfering with firefighting efforts,’” Ars Technica reported in July.

Sewell said he was aware of the drone issue in California before he took flight and did not want his aircraft to negatively impact the Kentucky National Guard.

Sewell’s formal interest in video and photography began at Jackson City School where he played basketball. His home is not in danger, for now.

“Forest fires, the wind blows one way, you could be in its path,” Sewell said.

Fernando Alfonso III: 859-231-1324, @fernalfonso