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Man arrested for flying drone into firefighting zone north of Sacramento

The Trailhead fire broke out along the middle fork of the American River near Todd Valley.
(Courtesy of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection)

A Placer County man was taken into custody Friday on suspicion of flying a drone into a firefighting effort northeast of Sacramento.

Information posted on social media helped lead to the arrest of Eric Wasser, 57, of Foresthill. Cal Fire officers took him into custody, booked him into the Placer County Jail in Auburn and charged him with interfering with firefighting operations, a misdemeanor.

He also could face prosecution from federal authorities for violating restricted air space, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Berlant said the arrest over a drone’s interference with firefighting was a first in California.

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The presence of the drone prompted authorities to ground aircraft for 30 minutes the evening of June 28, the day that the Trailhead fire broke out.

“Once sunset occurs, we are not able to use our aircraft,” Berlant said. “We needed to make as many drops as we could before sunlight went away. And at that point we had not been able to make access to the fire line on the ground, so the aircraft were critical.”

Chief George Morris III, the unit chief for Cal Fire in the area, said that lost time mattered.

“Every minute we couldn’t fly our aircraft because of this drone, the fire was able to grow and do more damage,” Morris said.

The Trailhead Fire began near the small communities of Todd Valley, Foresthill, Volcanoville and Georgetown. It burned 5,646 acres in steep, heavily forested canyons, forcing hundreds of residents of Placer and El Dorado counties to evacuate. It is nearly fully contained.

Over the past two years, hobbyists have operated increasing numbers of drones over wildfires.

Wasser apparently flew the drone to capture video and photos of the fire. Authorities said he posted the images on social media, a vital clue that led to his arrest.

Authorities have created a free smart-phone application to help drone operators avoid flying in restricted areas: https://www.faa.gov/uas/where_to_fly/b4ufly/.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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