California Eyes Tough New Laws For Unsafe Drone Operation

California Eyes Tough New Laws For Unsafe Drone Operation

A California lawmaker has decided enough is enough with drone traffic after a recent interference impacted firefighting efforts in San Bernardino County, California. A drone flying over a wildfire caused firefighting efforts to be cancelled due to an inability to drop fire retardant on portions of the fire. Now lawmakers are eyeing tough new fines and even jail time for those that cause havoc while operating their drones.

In late June, 30,000 of wilderness were burned up due to the Lake Fire in San Bernardino County, California. In an effort to keep the flames away from nearby homes, the U.S. Forest Service dispatched three plans containing fire retardant to dump over a portion of the fire.

Unfortunately, that retardant never made it to its intended target because these low-flying planes encountering a drone flying approximately 800 to 900 feet from the ground. The plane was able to release its retardant at another location; however, two of the planes had to dump their loads in order to land.

The cost of this aborted mission cost the U.S. Forest Service approximately $10,000. Lawmakers have introduced new legislation to ensure this does not happen again.

Last Week, Paul Cook, California representative introduced to the House of Representatives, H.R.3025. H.R.3025 would deem any interference with firefighting attempts on federal land a criminal offense. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard that aerial firefighting was brought to a grinding halt because a reckless individual decided to fly a drone over the Lake Fire,” according to Cook. “Not only did it put the lives of aerial firefighters in jeopardy, but the loss of air support for fire crews allowed the wildfire to spread.” Cook’s district is in California, near the area burned by the Lake Fire.

The bill has been named by Cook the Wildfire Airspace Protection Act of 2015, in which he proposes the flying of drones near firefighting efforts result in a fine and the possibility of jail time.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto and State Senator Ted Gaines want stricter fines for the interference of firefighting efforts in California. Gaines’ consultants, while finalizing the bill’s wording, stated the bill would also allow a maximum of six months’ jail time if the interferences are deemed to be either intentional or reckless.

Gatto previously stated he would be considering instating a maximum fine of $25,000 for drone pilots witnessed flying near wildfires. Eric Menjivar, Gatto’s communications director, stated the assemblyman would take into consideration imposing the highest maximum fine, while “that number could be completely different in the bill, we’re going to try to negotiate it and get it as high as possible,” according to Menjivar.

“It’s probably neat for people who have drones to observe a local fire this way,” Gatto stated last week. “But we just can’t let people interfere with aircraft.”

Drone traffic has become a big problem for legislators and regulators because the unmanned aircrafts have become available to the public. Due to ill-fated drone flights, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has ruled all drones flown by civilians must fly at an altitude no less than 400 feet, and are forbidden from ever flying near airports, stadiums and especially the White House.