5 Drones Interfere with Aerial Firefighters; Now That’s Entertainment

Monday, July 20, 2015
(photo: courtesy of Roswell Flight Test Crew)

It may be just a matter of time before live streaming of California’s year-round drought-fueled fire season becomes an entertainment staple of the Internet.

The industry, which hasn’t yet been monetized and presently relies on a few hobbyist drone owners feeding their ware to YouTube, is still in its infancy. But the camera-toting aircraft are active enough to cause increasing distress among firefighters.

Last Friday, five drones were spotted at the North Fire in Southern California that jumped the I-15 in the Cajon Pass and roasted dozens of vehicles on its way through. Three of the drones quickly split but the presence of the other two forced the U.S. Forest Service to ground their water-dropping planes for 25 minutes.

“Two of the drones pursued our lead plane,” department spokesman John Miller told NBC. “One underneath, one actually flying over the top.”

Nobody got caught, but if they were there its uncertain what would happen to them. State Senate Bill 167 was amended this month to include a provision making it a misdemeanor to interfere with a firefighter using a drone. The fine would be $200 to $2,000.  

Congressman Paul Cook (R-California) introduced H.R. 3025 (pdf) on July 10 to make it a crime to “launch drones that interfere with fighting wildfires affecting Federal property.”

It’s been more than a year since drones flying over the giant Sand fire east of Sacramento during air drops gave the activity major publicity. Videographer Jason Bross publicly promised not to do that again after hearing from the authorities but others have acted otherwise.

Jason Hall, who also flew a drone over the fire, said he acted responsibly by staying away from the planes and that was good enough. But he acknowledged, “Yes, people don’t agree with that and I get that but that was my decision.”

Drones are being sold by the thousands and are increasingly popping up at brushfire scenes. Last month, although temporary flight restrictions were in place, a drone flew across the path of an air tanker fighting the 17,000-acre Lake Fire in San Bernardino County. That curtailed air drops for the evening.

It’s fair to say that some of the amateur aviators may not have the finely-tuned sense of propriety possessed by Hall.

“These people have no idea that the F.A.A. even exists, let alone what the regulations are,” Rich Hanson, the director of Academy of Model Aeronautics, told the New York Times. “They are just having fun and looking for some kind of self-aggrandizement or some fame on YouTube.” 

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Hobby Drones Hinder California Firefighting Efforts (by Jennifer Medina, New York Times)

Drones Ground Helicopters Fighting Fire That Burned Across CA Highway (by Megan Geuss, Ars Technica)

Drones Hampered Firefighters Battling Blaze That Torched Cars on Calif. Freeway (by Phil Helsel, NBC News)

Ramos: County Supervisors to Discuss Crackdown on Drone Operators (by Joe Nelson, San Bernardino Sun)

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