Drones Delay SoCal Firefighting Effort

Sand Fire burns more than 30,000 acres in three days
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ARCADIA, CALIF.—Efforts to contain a wildfire covering Los Angeles in smoke and ash were delayed over the weekend when drones were spotted where firefighting aircraft are flying, according to published reports. The Santa Clarita Valley Signal cited the U.S. Forest Service saying firefighting aircraft were grounded for 30 minutes on Sunday after a drone was spotted flying over Bear Divide in Angeles National Forest. The incident prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a Temporary Flight Restriction in the area, according to the updates on InciWeb:

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“When drones interfere with firefighting efforts, a wildfire has the potential to grow larger and cause more damage. On the Sand Fire­­, an FAA Temporary Flight Restriction is in effect and any private aircraft or drone that violates the TFR could face serious criminal charges. Even without a TFR, anyone who hampers firefighting efforts could face charges­­­.”

The Forest Service has around 3,000 firefighters, 356 engines, 43 hand crews, 16 water tenders, 26 helicopters and 14 dozers fighting the fire, which started Friday afternoon and spread to more than 33,000 acres by Monday morning. As many as 10,000 homes have been evacuated and 18 destroyed in what KNBC said Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion Chief Dennis Cross called an “almost unprecedented” fire. The blaze was 10 percent contained as of Monday morning.

Drones are becoming more of a common sight for firefighting teams in the Southwest. In June, firefighting aircraft were temporarily grounded during an effort to contain a wildfire in the San Gabriel Mountains because of a drone, according to ars technica. KSL reported that aircraft fighting the Saddle Fire in Utah in early July also were grounded because of a drone.

The FAA warned drone operators a year ago about flying in a wildfire zone.

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“If you endanger manned aircraft or people on the ground with an unmanned aircraft, you could be liable for a fine ranging from $1,000 to a maximum of $25,000,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. “Know the rules before you fly. If you don’t, serious penalties could be coming your way for jeopardizing these important missions.”

Congress also weighed in on wildfires and drones a couple of weeks ago in a bill to extend funding for the operation of the FAA. The ‘‘FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016” extending funding for the agency through Sept. 30, 2017, authorizes fines of $20,000 for drone operators who interfere with fire suppression efforts. (See, “Drone Directives Detailed in FAA Extension,” July 13, 2016.)

Image of helicopter fighting the Sand Fire by Corey Fredrickson as posted on Twitter from @LACoFireAirOps.