As the California drought drags on, firefighters face a new enemy in their battle with wildfires: civilian drones.
Outside of LA on Friday, airborne firefighters were again prevented from making water drops on a wildfire by the activities of some local drone operators in search of spectacular pictures of the raging inferno. With the threat of mid-air collisions too great to continue, firefighters were prevented from performing their duties for a duration of around 20 minutes. Although drones can be a wonderful way to explore one’s surroundings, some of the “hold my beer” types are clearly interfering with the serious work of the fire teams.
Although the drone operators were likely to have obtained some extraordinary footage, civilians fled their cars on Interstate 15 as the wildfire passed through and burned many cars in the process. The charred vehicles should be a stark reminder to drone operators that the wildfires are serious business and anything that prevents an emergency response could endanger lives.
Four lanes of the I-15 were burned over a span of many yards. The blaze was battled by some 1,000 firefighters along with 22 fire engines, seven airplanes, and other equipment. The fire began in the desert near Phelan, 75 miles northeast of downtown LA. Damage totals included three houses, 64 vehicles, and eight other buildings.
The individuals fleeing their vehicles on I-15 included one Talia Sclafani, who just prior to running from her vehicle had been ordered by police to stay in her car. Trusting her own intuition, she fled along with others to a nearby hillside where they remained for three hours as the blaze passed through. Referred to as the “North Fire,” it burned over 3,500 acres and was only 5% contained. Firefighters attempted to salvage some of the vehicles by doing their water drops on the freeway, as citizens in nearby houses doused their homes and property in defense against the fire.
Conditions remain ideal for more wildfires and the FAA has placed temporary flight restrictions against unmanned drones during such fires. Compliance with the restrictions is currently voluntary, but if operation is done in a dangerous manner or the behavior continues after being contacted by the FAA, fines ranging from $1,000 to $25,000 could be imposed.
California lawmakers are eyeing tough new penalties in draft legislation revealed last week. That legislation came after earlier reports about drone operators preventing fire crews from dousing the flames.