Officials in one California county are offering $75,000 in rewards in the hope of catching drone operators whose devices have been getting in the way of larger aircraft trying to fight wildfires, while one member of the state's delegation in Congress has proposed federal prison time for operators who send drones over fires on federal land.
The Los Angeles Times reports that San Bernadino County, where pilots battling wildfires have been forced to delay operations on at least three occasions since mid-June to avoid colliding with drones, is offering a $25,000 reward for help identifying the amateur operators in each of the cases:
Drones first became a problem in the county during the Lake fire, which ignited June 17 and burned through more than 31,000 acres of wildlands in the San Bernardino National Forest and nearby San Gorgonio Wilderness.
Low-flying aircraft were preparing to drop fire retardant over flames in the Barton Flats area when a 3- to 4-foot drone was seen buzzing between two planes. Fire officials immediately grounded the aircraft. Fire officials later saw a second drone in the area.
On July 12—the first day of the Mill 2 fire—officials had to briefly suspend a tanker after a drone was spotted flying over Mill Creek Canyon near California 38.
And for about 25 minutes, officials had to halt tankers over the July 17 North fire, which jumped Interstate 15 near California 138 and destroyed dozens of vehicles, U.S. Forest Service officials said.
After interference during the North fire, which sent motorists on Interstate 15 fleeing on foot as fire consumed their cars, state lawmakers proposed a pair of bills that would make flying drones over fires a misdemeanor carrying up to $2,000 in fines and shield emergency personnel from liability for swatting them out of the way. U.S. Rep. Paul Cook, a Republican from California's Eighth District, has also introduced legislation that would threaten more than fines (or mangling of one's expensive toy) for operators that fly drones over fire zones in federal areas—H.R. 3025, the Wildfire Airspace Protection Act, was proposed by Cook earlier this month and would make flying a drone over a fire on federal land a federal offense punishable by up to five years in prison.
As San Bernadino National Forest aviation officer Mike Eaton told KTLA, authorities are already empowered to create aviation exclusion areas over federal land during fire operations, though such rules were written with traditional aircraft in mind. The FAA did once try to fine a drone operator in Virginia $10,000 for recklessness during a non-fire-related flight in 2011, but the case took several years ro resolve and ended up being settled for $1,100 without an admission of guilt. As drones become more affordable, there are bound to be more people who use them to buzz disasters with cameras attached, perhaps hoping to see their Twitter handles credited when the footage shows up on the local news—so whether or not any of these newly proposed rules become law, it seems likely that some additional restrictions on drones will be coming to protect the interests of emergency responders.