Wildfires are a Drone No-Fly Zone
After years of drought and rising temperatures, California is facing unprecedented fire risk. We need every firefighter, every shovel and every bulldozer and air tanker working together to battle wildfires. Yet few people realize that the proliferation of drones, unmanned aircraft predominantly used by hobbyists and technology enthusiasts, can create serious problems for the men and women on the front lines of California’s wildfires.
Firefighters across the state have reported on a disturbing string of incidents in which private drones, operating over wildfires, have interfered with reconnaissance aircraft or tanker aircraft dedicated to containing those blazes. The planes were forced to reroute or land, in some cases having to discharge their critical flame-retardant loads in areas not affected by fire and wasting crucial material. Forest Service officials have also voiced concerns that drones could interfere with the deployment and safety of the “smokejumper” crews who parachute into remote wildfire areas.
Families in the Crescenta Valley remember vividly the images of the Station Fire as it tore through the Angeles National Forest. And in 2013, our nation mourned the deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona who died fighting one of these blazes. One tanker drop could literally be the difference between life and death or a tract of homes going up in flames.
That’s why I’m pleased to team up with Senator Ted Gaines to introduce bipartisan legislation that will protect forests, property and the lives of citizens and firefighters, and punish criminals who ignore the safety of our emergency response professionals and the people they are trying to protect. There can be no patience with persons or groups who would risk others’ lives in this way.
Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration typically issues temporary flight restriction over disaster or hazard areas to protect people and property on the ground, protect the operation of disaster relief aircraft, and to prevent unsafe congestion of sightseeing or other aircraft above the disaster site. There is no state penalty for violating these federal restrictions.
California law dictates that it is a misdemeanor to interfere with the lawful efforts of a firefighter or company to extinguish a fire, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. SB167 will charge offenders a vastly increased penalty for the violation and will also consider adding incarceration as a penalty when the offense involves unauthorized drone use.
Drones hold great promise for wildfire suppression when used properly by the agencies tasked with extinguishing the blazes. But for a private citizen to fly a drone in these areas is dangerous and wrong. Let’s get the word out as far and wide as we can – immediately – to help keep our people and firefighters safe. Public safety must come first.
Mike Gatto is the chairman of the Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee, and the longest-serving current member of the State Assembly. He represents Burbank, Glendale, La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Montrose and the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Atwater Village, East Hollywood, Franklin Hills, Hollywood Hills, Los Feliz and Silver Lake. Follow him on Twitter @MikeGatto or visit www.asm.ca.gov/gatto.