Firefighters continued attacking the Trailhead Fire in the rugged foothills of El Dorado and Placer counties Saturday as federal authorities warned they could fine and prosecute hobbyists caught flying drones that interfered with firefighting aircraft.
The warnings came after unmanned drones twice entered restricted airspace near the fire this week and forced the grounding of firefighting aircraft because of the potential for accidents.
“When we ground the aviation because of an unauthorized drone in a fire zone, that means that the boots-on-the-ground (firefighters) don’t have as much support to fight the wildland fire,” said Shawna Legarza, director of fire and aviation for the U.S. Forest Service in California.
It also means the fire has more chance to burn unimpeded, Legarza said Friday during a news conference at McClellan Park near Sacramento, a base for the state’s aerial firefighting operations.
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The Trailhead Fire – which started Tuesday on the middle fork of the American River in steep, forested terrain – expanded to more than 3,218 acres overnight, authorities said. It remained 12 percent contained with nearly 1,700 firefighters battling the blaze.
Mandatory evacuations were in effect for residents near the community of Volcanoville and elsewhere in rural El Dorado County. The evacuations were lifted for residents Placer County, according to a tweet from the Placer County Sheriff’s Department. No structures have been destroyed.
There were a handful of people at the Red Cross shelter at Golden Sierra High School in Garden Valley on Friday evening. Most evacuees had a place to go in the rural, tight-knit area, said Mike Jamie, the Red Cross shelter a in Garden Valley.
There were about 10 people at the official Placer County shelter at the Gold Country Fair Grounds in Auburn, he said.
“A lot of people will shelter with family and friends,” Jamie said.
Firefighters continued trying to get the blaze under control about 10 miles north of Georgetown. The rugged terrain and inaccessibility of the fire has made firefighting aircraft essential to controlling it, but officials said drones hindered those efforts in recent days.
Dave Teter, with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said that on Tuesday, during the initial stages of the firefighting operations, a drone was spotted in the fire area, resulting in the grounding of all firefighting aircraft for more than 30 minutes.
Two days later another drone was spotted, and aircraft were grounded for nearly an hour, he said.
“Our air tactical group supervisor … who is coordinating the drops of the fixed-wing air tankers and water-dropping helicopters … had to have those grounded and focus on locating the operator and location of the drone,” Teter said.
The drone operators weren’t found but could have faced stiff penalties, authorities noted. Temporary flight restrictions are often put in place around wildfires, including the Trailhead Fire, and operators of unmanned aircraft are prohibited from interfering with aerial firefighting operations.
Scott Harris of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Law Enforcement Assistance Program, said anyone found flying a drone in a fire-traffic area can face civil penalties of up to $27,500 and criminal prosecution.
The FAA sent an email to nearly 500,000 registered drone operators in its system letting them know about the regulations, and Harris encouraged all drone pilots to continuously check faa.gov for updated rules.