Congressman asks FAA to block drones from interfering with firefighters

© Jim Urquhart
A California congressman has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to consider rules to block drones from flying in areas where firefighters are trying to carry out operations, especially when to trying to contain wildfires.

In a letter Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California) told the agency’s administrator that as the FAA begins to finalize regulations on the operation of commercial and hobbyist drones it should include rules concerning emergency first responders.

Schiff cited several instances when drones prevented firefighters from doing their job. US Forest Service and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were tackling the Lake fire in the San Bernardino Mountains in June when a drone interfered.

[A] DC-10 Air Tanker and two smaller planes were forced to divert and drop their fire retardant due a commercial drone flying in the area. Not only did this cost taxpayers between $10,000 to $15,000, it shut down further missions and allowed the wildfire to spread,” wrote Congressman Schiff, the Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Time is of the essence and even an hour of delay can be the difference between containment or an uncontrollable burn that destroys thousands of acres and threatens lives and property,” he added.

The congressman said another recent example was the ‘North Fire’ on June 25 when a wildfire jumped the 10 Freeway causing 70-80 motorists to abandon their cares and flee for their lives. Firefighting planes had to be rerouted because of five drones flying in the area. Twenty cars were destroyed and ten more suffered damaged.

These folks who are handling these drones, I have to assume they have no idea what they're doing,” Chon Bribiescas, a spokesman for the US Forest Service, told the Los Angeles Times in June. “They not only endangered the folks on the ground, but they endanger the pilots. It’s infuriating.”

Congressman Schiff recommended a measure of “geo-fencing” which would prevent commercial drones from flying in a geographic area where they are likely to interfere with firefighting activities. He also recommended the FAA consider a campaign to educate civilian drone operators about the dangers of operating in restricted airspace or an area with an emergency.

With California in the middle of a multi-year drought, we can expect to see more wildfires that threaten the lives and homes of many families,” added Schiff.

READ MORE: Cars ablaze as 3,500-acre California brush fire swallows freeway, homes

In the past week, Schiff said there were four reports of such clashes between drones and firefighters jostling over airspace.

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,” said Schiff, reported the Hill.

California lawmakers are considering legislation that would give firefighters immunity if they damage a drone that’s interfering with emergency response.