Drone hobbyists continue to interfere with wildfire battles in West

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By Wilborn P. Nobles III

Aircraft firefighting efforts were recently delayed in the Cajon Pass area because as many as five drones flew around the blaze, an official told a California legislative hearing Tuesday.

Ken Pimlott, chief of California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the fire burned 4,250 acres while destroying seven homes and multiple properties, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The actions of these hobbyists, whether it be for thrills, clicks on YouTube or profit from selling footage to newsrooms, prompted officials to share their concerns Tuesday with lawmakers in Sacramento.

“The most immediate and critical issue we face is the serious threat that these drones pose with the irresponsible use of them,” Pimlott said, according to the newspaper. “It is placing our air crews, our pilots, in immediate danger.”

Pimlott told the California news station KCRA-TV that one of his agency’s aircraft was “50 feet away from a mid-air collision” with a drone when authorities were returning from the Rocky Fire, “potentially killing the pilot and the air crew and placing people on the ground at grave risk.”

More than a dozen instances of drones interfering with wildfire battles have been reported this summer, he told the station.

The problem is also hitting wildfire-stricken areas of Canada. A stray drone grounded eight helicopters and five skimmers fighting a wildfire in British Columbia’s southern interior for up to five hours on Sunday, the CBC reported. 

Whoever flew the unmanned aircraft over the Testalinden Creek fire is “irresponsible and selfish in my mind,” drone operator and instructor Sterling Cripps told the network. “You have to be trained…. Someone flying in a forest fire is far from that.”

“You can imagine the consequence of ingesting a drone into an aircraft engine or into the windscreen of an aircraft,” Cripps told CBC. “It’s not a bird; it’s got more solid parts on it.”

Firefighting efforts in West Kelowna, B.C., have been hampered because of drones flying over the area, CBC reported.

Authorities have not identified who is flying the drones and no one has brought down any of these aircraft, either. But the hearing of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management is exploring ways to confront drone use near fires.

“It is against the law currently to interfere with police, with the duties of firefighters, the duties of EMT or ambulance personnel,” Philip Horner, consultant to the legislative committee, told the Sacramento Bee on Monday. “Yet now we have these drones doing that and they’re unregulated.”

Lt. Barbara Ferguson of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department told the hearing that when firefighters issued a warning by turning on helicopter sirens, three unauthorized drone operators left the scene, but two remained,the Press-Enterprise reported.

She said a drone even trailed a spotter plane into the fire zone area.

“Unless we have witnesses on the ground that actually see them operating those … it is very difficult to investigate who those operators are,” Ferguson said during the Sacramento hearing, the paper reported.

One senate bill will make the drone use over wildfires a state crime worth up to six months in jail with a fine as high as $5,000. A second bill would give firefighters and other emergency responders the power to damage drones without penalty in light of the aircraft’s interference with emergency services.

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