Drone Impeded California Firefighting Efforts

The privately-owned drone caused Cal Fire crews to suspend their helicopter operations for several minutes.

by Patrick May, The Mercury News / October 17, 2017
Shutterstock

(TNS) -- Firefighting teams trying to tamp down the still-active fires in the California Wine County have a message for any would-be drone operators hoping to capture video of the disaster from the air:

Don’t even think about it.

As fire crews continue their battle to contain the blazes, the California Highway Patrol has made it clear that amateur operators pose a serious threat to the firefighting efforts. The drones can hamper fire operations, especially those using retardant-dropping aircraft.

A post on the CHP’s Santa Rosa Facebook page said Cal Fire had spotted multiple drones in the active-fire areas.

“Cal Fire is reporting drones in the Petaluma area,” said the Sunday post, emphasizing the message in upper-case letters: “FIRE FIGHTING PLANES CANNOT FLY IF YOUR DRONE IS IN THE AIR! Land them if you want these fires out!”

And putting a finer point on the warning, the CHP added this: “Drone pilot has been arrested in Petaluma.”

The Petaluma Police Department said their officers on Sunday afternoon cited 24-year-old Nestor Rodriguez for flying his drone over the local airport used as a base for Cal Fire helicopter missions. As has happened in previous fires, Rodriguez’s drone caused firefighting helicopters to cease operations for approximately 10 minutes.

The police said in a statement that Cal Fire reported that they believed the person flying the drone was at East Washington Fields east of the airport. When officers arrived, Cal Fire employees had located Rodriguez, a resident of Petaluma. He told officers he did not know his actions were illegal.

Rodriguez was issued a citation to appear for impeding emergency personnel. The FAA has also been notified and will be conducting its own investigation.

The helicopters being flown out of Petaluma have been an integral part of the firefighting operations in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties. “The drone,” said police, “was not only potentially perilous for the helicopters landing at and leaving the airport” but “it also held up the operation, endangering lives and further fire damage to an already fire ravaged area.”

The FAA and Cal Fire have gone after drone operators in the past during active fires. Authorities often put temporary flight restrictions in place during an active fire and unmanned aircraft systems are prohibited from entering the air space. Over the weekend, Cal Fire said on Twitter that an illegal drone operator had caused their crews to stop fighting the fires.

While the FAA’s Know Before You Go website does not specifically address amateur drone use during the California fires, it does make clear that such behavior can seriously interfere with crews trying to put out a blaze. Here’s a look at some of that information from the FAA:

Wildfires are very dangerous, even from the air. That’s why the FAA puts temporary flight restrictions, or TFRs, in place above wildfires and other hazardous conditions to allow first responders to do their jobs unimpeded and without danger to their aerial support. There should be no traffic within the boundaries of a TFR – manned or unmanned – except for those supporting the operations.

Temporary flight restrictions, or TFRs, define special restrictions for the airspace during special events or hazardous situations. When a TFR is in place, there should be no air traffic – manned or unmanned – except for those supporting the operations. But TFRS do not just apply to wildfires. For stadium events ranging from concerts to NASCAR races to the Super Bowl, model aircraft flights and unmanned aircraft operations are generally restricted.

They often are put in place with short notice, so before taking your model aircraft or UAS out for a flight, it is important to check with the FAA to ensure that there are no TFRs in your area.

It is very important that wildfire operations are allowed to proceed unimpeded. Violating the TFR may endanger the safety of the operation, and in some cases may ground search and rescue crews until the airspace is cleared, allowing the wildfire to spread.

Model aircraft and UAS operators should obtain up-to-date information about TFRs from the FAA or flight service. Timely alerts are also available on the web or on your cell phone at: Twitter.com/amagov.

Questions remained Monday about the legality of drone videos posted by some news outlets. In response to questions about whether these groups were exempted from rules banning amateur drones from active fire fights, an FAA spokesman said the agency “can permit newsgathering drone operations in wildfire areas, but they must be coordinated with the incident commander.”

This newspaper and its affiliates have drones at their disposal but refrained from using them in the Wine Country fires because the FAA posted a TFR around the fire areas.

“Often a temporary flight restriction (TFR) is put in place around wildfires to protect firefighting aircraft,” said the FAA in a statement. “No one other than the agencies involved in the firefighting effort can fly any manned or unmanned aircraft in such a TFR. Anyone who violates a TFR and endangers the safety of manned aircraft could be subject to civil and/or criminal penalties. Even if there is no TFR, operating a UAS could still pose a hazard to firefighting aircraft and would violate Federal Aviation Regulations.”

©2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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