The Los Angeles Fire Department dispatched drones for the first time while battling a wildfire this month as firefighters took on the Skirball fire in Bel-Air.
Fire officials demonstrated the use of the unmanned aerial vehicles for reporters on Thursday, sending two drones buzzing near blackened hills around Linda Flora Drive.
“They provide real-time situational awareness from a bird’s-eye perspective to the incident commander so they can see what’s going on at their emergency and then change their tactics accordingly to mitigate the hazards,” said Capt. Erik Scott, an LAFD spokesman.
Firefighters used two DJI Matrice 100 drones during the Skirball fire, Scott said. One had a high-definition camera used to survey the burn area, and the other had an infrared camera to assess hot spots.
The Skirball fire, sparked by a cooking fire in a homeless encampment, destroyed six homes and burned more than 400 acres.
The Los Angeles City Council this summer voted to let the LAFD start seeking Federal Aviation Administration authorization to use drones, despite objections from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups concerned about privacy rights.
Hamid Khan, founder of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, argued at the time that allowing the Fire Department to use drones would provide a “backdoor” way to share information with police.
The City Council approved guidelines for the department’s drone usage in November.
Scott said the drones “will not be used to monitor or provide surveillance for law enforcement purposes” and that they will only be operated by trained, certified and licensed pilots.
“We’ve been very careful, slow and methodical about how we’re implementing this program,” he said.
During the Skirball blaze, firefighters used the drones to fly the perimeter of the burn area and to assess burned homes, he said.
Scott said it is much cheaper to operate a drone than to pay for a helicopter and its crew and fuel while fighting wildfires.
The department hopes to use drones to help search for missing hikers, assess hazardous materials incidents and provide an extra vantage point for swift-water rescues.
“By no means will these ever replace helicopters and those talented pilots that provide water drops, hoist rescues of injured hikers and pull people out of the Los Angeles River, but this is an excellent tool for the LAFD toolbox,” he said.
The department’s first fleet of drones was purchased through private funding from the Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation, Scott said.
“It cost nothing to the city,” he said.
Fire departments throughout the state have complained about private drone operators’ vehicles impeding firefighting efforts because, they say, the vehicles could collide with aircraft flying at low altitudes.
In 2015, firefighting aircraft were hampered multiple times from dropping water or chemicals on Southern California brush fires after hobby drones flew into the area.
During a fire in the Cajon Pass that summer that burned several cars on Interstate 15, water drops were halted just before the blaze jumped the freeway because of a recreational drone flying nearby.
Last year, firefighters had to temporarily halt air operations during a fire in the San Gabriel Mountains above Duarte and Azusa because several drones had been spotted over the mountains.
Petaluma police in October cited a drone operator for flying an aircraft near the Petaluma Airport, where Cal Fire was staging operations for fighting the deadly blazes in Northern California, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.