The U.S. Forest Service is stepping up its attack on snooping drones watching firefighting aircraft after six flights had to be grounded because drones got too close. In one case, the fire took advantage of the pause and engulfed several structures that could have been saved.

In a beefed up media effort, the service is threatening penalties if media or private drones are caught interfering with the flights out west, mostly fighting California wildfires.

It was the first time that six grounded flights were identified.

"If a [drone] is detected flying over or near a wildfire, we will stop airtankers from dropping fire retardant, helicopters from dropping water and other aerial firefighting aircraft from performing wildfire suppression missions until we can confirm that the drone has left the area and we are confident it won't return," said Steve Gage, a Forest Service representative in Boise, Idaho.

The problem is this: The firefighters fly at the same low altitude as drones, typically 200-300 feet up. "This creates the potential for a mid-air collision that could seriously injure or kill aerial or ground firefighters. In addition, if a drone loses its communication link it could fall from the sky, causing serious injuries or deaths of firefighters on the ground," said the Forest Service in a statement.

The Service also posted a YouTube warning of state and federal penalties against both commercial and private drone users.

Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at