When you combine years of drought with acres of decades-old brush, you quickly have more than 25,000 acres going up in smoke. For most Californians, coping with fires isn’t new. California has to deal with large fires on a fairly regular basis. The recent Lake Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains would have been another routine fire fight, until an irresponsible drone pilot decided to make an unscheduled appearance. (At Drone Universities, we feel strongly about drone safety and we encourage new drone pilots to consider our drone university courses.)
Firefighters battling the massive Lake Fire deep in the San Bernardino Mountains found themselves waging war Thursday against the remote-controlled flying machines, in this case civilian drones that halted aerial fire-suppression efforts on Wednesday and contributed to the spread of the fire and threatened lives, officials said.
“We got law enforcement out there. If it’s launched again, we’ll be on you,” said Mike Eaton, forest aviation officer for the U.S. Forest Service and air tactical group supervisor on the Lake Fire, during a news conference at the U.S. Forest Service Air Tanker Base in San Bernardino.
Eaton said the orange or red drone with a 3-to-4-foot wingspan cut between two planes, flying at elevations of 12,500 feet and 11,500 feet, at 5:35 p.m. Wednesday. The drone was flying at an elevation of about 12,000 feet, he said.
That’s right. The article states the drone was flying between 11,500 to 12,500 feet. This breaks the current FAA rules, unless the drone has a special exemption. While the rules are fairly straightforward, Kurtis Lee, a reporter with the LA Times, simplifies the rules deftly. “All drones have to be under 55 pounds, can fly at a maximum speed of 100 mph and cannot be flown at an altitude of more than 500 feet above the ground. However, with special Air Traffic Control clearance drones can be flown at altitudes between 500 feet and 18,000 feet. The drone must remain in the line of sight of the operator at all times and has to be flown during the daytime.” Considering how irresponsible the drone pilots were, I’m fairly confident they are not flying rotorcraft that are 333 exempt.
Not only did the pilot stall firefighting efforts for three hours and risk the lives of our first responders, they also wasted taxpayer money.
Wednesday’s drone encounter in the San Bernardino Mountains forced the air tanker pilots to jettison a total of about 2,000 gallons of retardant at a cost of roughly $15,000, U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Miller said. It also forced the grounding of three aircraft, including two air tankers preparing to drop retardant along the eastern flank of the fire.
“More importantly, it could’ve killed everybody in the air,” Miller said at the news conference, which was held specifically to address the drone situation.
The lack of responsibility of this pilot is shocking. The fire department and sheriff’s department are taking this very seriously. If they can locate the pilot, criminal charges may apply.
We’re working closely with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department to try to determine where these (drones) came from and who was operating them,” Miller said. “One of the things we’re asking from the public is if they did see anything, definitely to give us a call or give the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s (Department) a call, and then we’ll take it from there.”
What is the message that the authorities were trying to share?
He said the biggest message authorities were trying to convey to drone hobbyists is to stay out of restricted airspace whenever there’s a wildland fire or law enforcement activity occurring.
“We want to reinforce the message to the hobbyists out there that they have to think before they fly, and if they fly, we can’t,” Miller said.
“We all have seen the rapid growth in the use of these things for a multitude of different uses. It’s something that a couple of years ago we didn’t have to deal with.”
In my mind, not only did the pilot of this drone create an unsafe environment and risk the lives of numerous people, this event could spark domestic, anti-drone sentiments.
Illegal 4 Foot Drone Shut Down Aerial Firefight Over Lake Fire Forest Service