On Sunday, firefighters battling the Sand Fire in Southern California had to shut down aerial firefighting operations for about 30 minutes after an unauthorized drone entered airspace that the FAA put under temporary restriction due to the active wildfire.
As of Tuesday morning, the Sand Fire in the northwestern portion of the Angeles National Forest had burned more than 37,500 acres, with containment at 10 percent. Authorities have said at least 18 homes have been lost and one person killed as a result of the blaze.
California officials have put significant resources on the ground and air fighting the Sand Fire, which was first reported Friday and is burning in an area with heavy brush and dry conditions worsened by the state’s ongoing drought. Nearly 3,000 personnel are fighting the blaze and more than 20 firefighting aircraft are being used.
“Our effort to protect the property can be impacted by UAS’s and drones in that area,” Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Robert Garcia said during a Sand Fire press update Monday. “If you fly, we can’t, and that does have an impact on our aerial assault.”
According to fire officials, the drones are a hazard because they can get into an engine of a jet aircraft fighting a wildfire or strike a propeller-driven aircraft such as a heli-tanker. Aerial firefighting aircraft tend to fly low over fires and in the same general airspace as hobbyist drones.
Twenty-one drones were spotted at the scenes of wildfires nationwide in 2014-2015, and aircraft were grounded six times. And there have been at least two occasions when firefighting aircraft have had to take evasive actions to avert a collision with drones.
In this year alone, at least 15 unauthorized UAVs have been reported to affect aerial firefighting operations in California and other states, according to the Interior Department.
Earlier this month, a Placer County man was arrested in Northern California for allegedly piloting his hobby drone in June over the Trailhead Fire north of Sacramento. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said at the time of the arrest that the incursion forced aerial firefighting assets for a time to be grounded.
He was charged one misdemeanor count of interfering with firefighting operations and found after posting a video on social media. The fine for the misdemeanor is $1,000.
In the case of the Sand Fire drone intrusion, the person responsible for that unauthorized UAV flight could face stiffer penalties since the incursion was in a fire zone under FAA flight restrictions, according to Cal Fire spokesperson Lynne Tolmachoff. On top of criminal prosecution, civil penalties can reach $27,500.