BY RICHARD BROOKS AND NIKIE JOHNSON
A drone temporarily postponed the air battle Sunday, July 12 against a 30-acre wildfire near Yucaipa, where flames threatened ridgetop homes.
“They were delayed from leaving,” said San Bernardino Air Tanker Base staffer Kelly Mathis, referring to an MD-87 jet tanker, a water-dropping Skycrane helicopter and a Hemet-based Cal Fire S-2 Tracker tanker. All three took off 10 minutes later than planned.
Someone on the ground spotted the unmanned aircraft flying over the fire shortly after the 2:46 p.m. start of the Mill 2 fire, raising the possibility of a midair collision between the drone and any firefighting aircraft that entered that airspace.
Mathis said she didn’t know how the problem was resolved, but the firefighting pilots soon received takeoff clearance.
The incident marked the third time in recent weeks that apparently privately owned drones have delayed firefighting aircraft.
On a crucial day last month in the fight against the 49-square-mile Lake fire in the San Bernardino Mountains and San Gorgonio Wilderness, air tankers were grounded after a drone passed 500 feet below one firefighting airplane and 500 feet above another.
The next day, planes fighting a smaller fire on the outskirts of San Bernardino were grounded because of a drone.
Fire officials nationwide take each incident seriously.
“It’s always a big deal … when you have a fire headed for some homes,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Bob Poole.
No homes were damaged by the Mill 2 blaze, but four were evacuated because of the danger.
Crews soon halted the flames in the hills along near the 38 and Bryant Street, north of Yucaipa and east of Mentone, though it was only 10 percent contained by nightfall.
The battle was fought by seven hand crews supported by 17 fire engine crews, two bulldozers, five helicopters and three air tankers. Firefighters were dispatched from the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire, San Bernardino County Fire Department and the cities of Redlands and Loma Linda.
The 38 was closed between Bryant Street and Lake Williams, in part because of the Mill 2 fire and in part because of another small fire a few miles uphill that started when a motorcyclist crashed.
The upper part of the highway reopened after a few hours. The last traffic restrictions were lifted just before 10 p.m.