Guest post by: Megan Geuss/ARS Technica
On Friday, a wildfire northeast of Los Angeles spread so quickly that it jumped onto I-15 during gridlock, forcing passengers to flee as the flames engulfed their vehicles. But amid the chaos, helicopters were grounded for 20 minutes due to firefighting's most futuristic nuisance—drones.In an incident overview, the US Forest Service wrote that "An Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS or drone) halted tanker operations for about 25 minutes on Friday afternoon, but operations soon resumed.” CNN reports that there were actually five drones in the airspace above the fire, according to a San Bernardino County Fire spokesperson they spoke to.
Eric Sherwin of the San Bernardino County Fire Department told CNN, "Fortunately, there were no injuries or fatalities to report, but the 15 to 20 minutes that those helicopters were grounded meant that 15 to 20 minutes were lost that could have led to another water drop cycle, and that would have created a much safer environment and we would not have seen as many citizens running for their lives.” Authorities were not able to catch any of the drone pilots. The wildfire ended up torching 20 cars and partially burning 10. As of Sunday morning, the fire was 60 percent contained.
In a statement, the US Forest Service wrote:
As hobby drones have grown in popularity, we have seen an increase in these drones interfering with firefighting operations. A collision could easily result in major damage to our aircraft, injuries to the pilot and crew on board as well as firefighters below, and worse, a midair collision.
When drones interfere with firefighting efforts, a wildfire has the potential to grow larger and cause more damage. On most wildfires, an FAA Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) is put into effect and any private aircraft or drone that violates the TFR could face serious criminal charges.
Even without a TFR, anyone who hampers firefighting efforts could face charges as well.
With California in a historic drought, the start of wildfire season has firefighting teams nervous. The increasing popularity of drones means that firefighters may have yet another obstacle to extinguishing fires before they get too big.
In late June, teams trying to quench the Lake Fire in San Bernardino county had to divert three low-flying planes delivering flame retardant because of recreational drones flying over the burning area. The failed mission cost the US Forest Service $10,000.
Since then, two California state lawmakers and one federal representative from the state have introduced bills to increase fines and add jail time to sentences for people caught flying drones above wildfires.
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