Private drones are putting firefighters in 'immediate danger,' California fire official says

Private drones are putting firefighters in 'immediate danger,' California fire official says
A helicopter works to put out a fire near Oak Hills, Calif., in July. In recent months, private drones have flown dangerously close to firefighting aircraft, interfering with operations. (James Quigg / Associated Press)

Top state fire officials told lawmakers Tuesday that private drones are posing a serious danger to air crews and other emergency workers battling wildfires, with more than a dozen incursions reported just this summer.

Most recently, a DC-10 air tanker returning to base after fighting the Rocky fire in Northern California came within 50 feet of a drone, said Ken Pimlott, chief of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"The most immediate and critical issue we face is the serious threat that these drones pose with the irresponsible use of them," Pimlott told a joint hearing of two legislative committees. "It is placing our air crews, our pilots, in immediate danger."

He said aircraft had to be pulled from a recent fire in the Cajon Pass for several minutes because of the presence of five drones. In other cases, air ambulances have reported near collisions, including an incident last week in Fresno in which a helicopter came within 25 feet of a drone, officials told the lawmakers.

The Cajon Pass and Fresno drone operators have not been identified, but investigations are underway, officials said.

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said many of the drone operators involved in interfering with firefighting are hobbyists, some of whom post their video on YouTube. Officials said some may also be freelancers hoping to sell footage of disasters to television news stations.

In response, the state has launched a public service campaign with a television commercial titled "If you fly, we can't," in which Cal Fire pilots talk about the danger of sharing the skies with hobby drones.

Tuesday's testimony supported the need for legislation to restrict the use of unmanned aerial devices where emergency workers are operating, according to members of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"We should not wait for a tragedy to occur before acting," said Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona), panel chairman.

Ideas being considered by legislators include putting an identifying number on drones so authorities can trace their operators, and setting fines of up to $5,000 when drones interfere with emergency workers.

It is already a violation of federal law to interfere with an aircraft, but the FAA is developing new regulations to address the particular issues raised by drones.

Emergency agency officials said they are developing a plan for their own use of drones to help keep track of wildfires, search for people missing in the wilderness and look for criminal suspects on the loose.

Medical officials are even considering using drones to deliver automated external defibrillators to scenes where people need life support.

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