California county offers $25k for data on drone operators who interfered with firefighters

© Robert Galbraith
San Bernardino County is moving to offer rewards of $25,000 each for information that would lead to the arrest and conviction of drone operators who flew UAVs during three wildfires in the area in recent weeks.

The San Bernardino Board of Supervisors is poised to authorize the bounty after unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones, restricted firefighting efforts during the North Fire near Cajon Pass on July 17, the Mill 2 Fire in Yucaipa on July 12, and the Lake Fire near Barton Flats that began on June 17.

Officials said that drones hampered firefighting aircraft, forcing the planes to land as fires spread. Officials warned that drones in unauthorized airspace with firefighting aircraft could cause an in-air crash or harm bystanders.

The Board of Supervisors will approve the reward funding on Tuesday, NBC4 reported.

The Lake Fire reached more than 31,000 acres in size and is about 98 percent contained. The fire is believed to have been caused by human activity, though the incident remains under investigation, according to an incident report. As crews sought to combat the fire, a 10,800 gallon drop of fire retardant was called off due to the presence of a small hobbyist drone.

The North Fire eventually encapsulated the I-15 freeway in Cajon Pass, California, destroying about 20 cars and damaging 10 more as motorists were forced to abandon dozens of vehicles to escape the blaze's wrath. The fire burned around 4,250 acres, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Two drones inhibited tanker operations at the Sterling Fire, also in San Bernardino County, in late June, according to KTLA.

The Federal Aviation Administration, the federal body crafting regulations for commercial drone use, did temporarily ban drones from flying near a 167-acre fire near Palomar Mountain in northern San Diego County that began on July 24, according to the Press Enterprise.

California lawmakers, meanwhile, have made their own strides in responding to the issue of drone interference with firefighting attempts.

Sen. Ted Gaines and Assemblyman Mike Gatto announced last week that Senate Bill 168 would seek to protect emergency responders who damage drones in the process of rescue operations. In addition, Senate Bill 167 would seek fines more than $1,000 and possible jail time for anyone using a drone that disrupts firefighters in action.

“Of course you want to get the word out and address the education element,” Gaines said, according to Wired. “But there ought to be a consequence for putting people’s lives in harm’s way.”

Late last week, California congressman Adam Schiff asked the Federal Aviation Administration, the federal body crafting regulations for commercial drone use, to create rules that bar drones from flying anywhere near firefighting operations in the US, especially amid wildfires.

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.