Firefighters to drone operators: Stay out of our way
There’s no denying a drone can capture gripping footage of an inferno.
Last year, as flames ripped through a massive Mission Bay apartment complex that was under construction, an amateur San Francisco photographer launched a small quadcopter outfitted with a GoPro camera from within a crowd of gawkers straining for a view a few blocks away. The overhead images were stunning — and garnered thousands of views on YouTube.
“Incredible,” wrote one online commenter.
But such drone flights — whether for sport or for money — have become a problem for firefighters trying to battle California wildland blazes with their own aircraft, according to officials. This week, two state legislators announced they had drafted a pair of bills that could lead to increased fines and jail time for drone scofflaws, while allowing firefighters to destroy wayward devices with impunity.
They pointed to the latest dustup, on Friday, when firefighters said sightings of nearby drones delayed helicopters from dropping water on a Southern California blaze that jumped a freeway and burned homes and cars. They said helicopters and air tankers could be disabled — or even crash — if drones end up in their flight path.
In the past month alone, camera-equipped drones have hampered aerial firefighting in half a dozen cases across the state, officials said.
“This is maddening, and I can’t believe that hobby drones are risking people’s lives to get videos on YouTube,” said state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin (Placer County), who authored the two drone bills with Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles.
“Drone operators are risking lives when they fly over an emergency situation,” Gatto said. “Just because you have access to an expensive toy that can fly in a dangerous area doesn’t mean you should do it.”
One of the bills would increase fines and introduce the possibility of jail time for drone operators who interfere with firefighting efforts. The other would grant immunity to any emergency responder who damages or destroys a hobby drone in the course of a firefighting, air ambulance or search-and-rescue operation.
Fire officials have an unlikely ally in their mission to clear out drones — Jason Bross, a quadcopter operator known on YouTube as “jayzaerial.”
He posted dramatic videos last year of the Sand Fire near Lake Tahoe. Set to evocative music, his camera skimmed over the treetops and provided a perspective no one else had. The online comments came quickly: “Very nice shot, what type of a camera are you using?” one person wrote.
But another person, who self-identified as a nearby resident, wrote that families had only minutes to evacuate and that any action that could hinder firefighters was irresponsible.
“If you were the drone operator that interfered with the Sand Fire operations,” the commenter wrote, “I hope charges are filed.”
In an interview Tuesday, Bross, 38, of Shingle Springs (El Dorado County) acknowledged that what he did “was stupid” and said he had a simple message for fellow drone pilots seeking to film fires: “Just basically, don’t even do it.”
Berlant said that on Friday air operations were suspended by 15 to 20 minutes because five drones were aloft during the initial stages of the 4,250-acre North Fire, which jumped Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County, destroyed seven homes and left 44 vehicles charred, smoking hulls. A task force is calculating how much additional damage was caused by the delay, Berlant said.