The Newest Threat to California Firefighters: Drones

This summer in Cajon Pass, the “North Fire” raged along Interstate 15 as dozens of motorists were forced to abandon their cars and flee for their lives. Wind aided the fire’s growth, and aircraft were quickly needed to drop water and flame retardant on the blaze. In recent years, wildfires like this one have ravaged California due to the unfavorable combination of drought and high heat. With no end to these conditions in sight, we must make available all essential resources that our firefighters and first responders need to combat wildfires.

Over the past few fire seasons, the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have encountered a new obstacle preventing them from containing wildfires –  unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.  In the case of the North Fire, as the flames jumped the Interstate, firefighting operations had to be halted due to five drones flying over the wildfire, endangering firefighters in the air.

Drones have gone from a niche hobby to big business in a short period of time, with tens of thousands sold each year. Some are used for commercial purposes, like filming movies, promoting real estate or assisting in agriculture. Others are used for recreational purposes by a growing number of enthusiastic hobbyists. When they are used responsibly, drones can be a useful and fun tool. But in a complicated and crowded airspace like the one we have above Los Angeles, we need to be sure we are protecting public safety and privacy as well. And after several near misses in just the past few weeks in which drones have been piloted above active wildfires and caused the grounding of tankers full of fire retardant, it’s clear we have a problem on our hands.

In firefighting, time is often of the essence and even an hour of delay can be the difference between containment and a fire that gets away and destroys thousands of acres and threatens lives and property. First responders must have the ability to address wildfires quickly and cannot be constrained by civilian use of a drone in the vicinity, but this is just what is happening. Not only do these drones put first responder pilots’ lives at risk, they also prevent these firefighters from helping to contain wildfires and put the lives of ordinary citizens at risk.

The rapid growth of this new technology, and its attendant affordability, mean that regulation has lagged far behind deployment, and we’re scrambling, both locally and at the federal level, to catch up. We need to update our regulations and examine all options to keep people from flying drones in dangerous situations, like around airports or above wildfires.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has studied the issue, and in February released a draft regulation that would help address some concerns, including by making clear where and how drones can be operated in our skies. But there’s more we must do. Last month I wrote to the FAA along with twenty of my California colleagues to put the issue of drones interfering with fire-fighting operations front and center and to ask the FAA to study technological solutions to prevent drones from entering into restricted airspace. Some of these technologies are already on the market, and they can be adapted to the problems posed by wildfires.

Geofencing technology – already being incorporated into some new drones – automatically prohibits drones from flying near airports. If this technology can be matured fast enough, it may allow geofences to be erected remotely and updated in the case of wildfires. Other technologies may help firefighters take over control of a drone, jam its signal or geolocate the person flying it over a wildfire or airport so they can be arrested, fined or jailed. The FAA should consider whatever steps, and technologies, are available to assist in these efforts and encourage their development.

The most important effort in addition to regulation is working to ensure that the general public understands that flying a drone near a wildfire is dangerous and illegal. It puts the lives of firefighters at risk, as well as the lives and property of those on the ground. This is a challenging problem, but it’s a solvable one. We must be proactive to ensure that the next time we read about a wildfire we are not also reading about casualties that could have been prevented.

Firefighters already put their lives at risk and we must do everything we can to mitigate the dangers they face.  Responsible use of drones will help.

Rep. Adam Schiff represents California’s 28th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.