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Fire Officials: Hobby Drones Hamper Firefighting In California

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

A file photo of a helicopter heading to the King Fire to make a water drop, September 2014.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Federal and state fire officials are urging drone hobbyists to keep their unmanned aerial vehicles out of the sky during firefighting operations. 

Several agencies, from the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire to the National Park Service and California National Guard, gathered Friday at McClellan Park in Sacramento to point out the problems caused by hobby drones when they fly over wildfires. 

Hobby drones caused the suspension of aerial operations recently as crews were fighting wildfires in three national forests in California. 

"When we shut down the aviation, that's the air tankers and the helicopters, that's the people in the air that are providing support to the ground firefighters and protecting the homes and the public and the people of California," says Shawna Legarza, Fire and Aviation Director for the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region

Hobby drones caused air operations to stop as crews battled wildfires in the Lassen, Plumas and San Bernardino National Forests. Dave Teter, Deputy Director of Fire Protection for Cal Fire, says suspending air efforts endangers fire crews.  

"While that operation is suspended, the fires have and will continue to grow, they will become more difficult and more challenging to suppress,” says Teter. “They will become larger, potentially more damaging and most certainly, more costly to fight." 

Teter referenced 2014’s Sand Fire in El Dorado County, as he stressed the importance of keeping hobby drones away from fire crews. 

"The aerial asset operation had to be suspended because of a drone intrusion," says Teter. "It took nearly 40 minutes to isolate and ground that hobby drone so that the aerial assets could re-engage and support the firefighters on the ground."

Teter says when hobby drones interfere with fire operations, it puts aerial assets, firefighters on the ground and the public at risk.

It's currently a misdemeanor to interfere with firefighters in California.

Two state lawmakers say they'll introduce legislation to increase fines and add jail time for anyone who uses an unauthorized drone that interferes with firefighting.