Inappropriate, wrongful, dangerous or threatening behavior often elicits response from government. And now, today’s ground-bounded air navigators have crossed the line. Last week, state and federal legislators announced plans to control the use of unmanned aircraft systems, commonly known as drones, over wildfires.
Owners of these aircraft interfered with air resources battling the recent Lake Fire. Media reports and a U.S. Forest Service press conference last month during the fire caught the attention of local legislators, who have introduced legislation to punish the “voyeurs” for interfering in efforts to fight wildfires.
On Thursday, July 9, Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) and Sen. Ted Gaines (R-El Dorado) announced bipartisan plans to introduce Senate Bill 167, which will make it a serious state crime to fly a drone over a wildfire.
Then Friday, July 10, Rep. Paul Cook (R- Apple Valley) introduced H.R. 3025, “The Wildfire Airspace Protection Act of 2015.” This bill will institute a federal criminal penalty on anyone who launches a drone that interferes with fighting wildfires on federal property. Anyone convicted under the act would face a fine and imprisonment for up to five years.
Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration typically issues temporary flight restriction during wildfires that require aircraft, manned or unmanned, that are not involved in wildfire suppression operations, to obtain permission from fire managers to enter specified airspace. The FAA, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of the Interior and other wildland fire management agencies consider drones, including those used by members of the public for hobby and recreation purposes, to be aircraft and therefore subject to TFRs.
In his press release, Cook said, “I couldn’t believe it when I heard that aerial firefighting was brought to a grinding halt because a reckless individual decided to fly a drone over the Lake Fire. Not only did it put the lives of aerial firefighters in jeopardy, but the loss of air support for fire crews allowed the wildfire to spread …”
While 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. SB 167 will charge offenders a vastly increased penalty for the violation and also will consider adding incarceration as a penalty when the offense involves unauthorized drone use.
“I’m pleased to join with Sen. Gaines to introduce legislation that will punish criminals who ignore the safety of our emergency response professionals and the people they are trying to protect,” said Gatto. “There can be no patience with persons or groups who would risk others’ lives in this way.”
Drone interference with firefighters at the Lake Fire was not the only incident. The next day, firefighters had to temporarily suspend air operations at the Sterling Fire. And media reported that drones also delayed the take-off of air tankers fighting Sunday’s Mill 2 Fire.