New rules restrict drones from wildfire zones after Trailhead Fire interference

Authorities have issued temporary restrictions on drones after two of the unmanned aircraft forced officials to ground firefighting airplanes and helicopters battling the Trailhead Fire this week.

The fire has expanded to more than 2,000 acres in the rugged foothills of El Dorado and Placer Counties and remains only partially contained. Firefighting aircraft are essential to controlling the fire but can’t fly when drone operators create hazards, officials said.

“When we ground the aviation because of an unauthorized drone in a fire zone, that means that the boots-on-the-ground folks don’t have as much support to fight the wild land fire,” Shawna Legaza, fire and aviation director of the U.S. Forest Service, said. “It also means that the fire is going to continue to burn and threaten homes (and natural resources).”

Dave Teter, with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said on Tuesday, during the initial stage of 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 Scott Harris of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Law Enforcement Assistance Program, said anyone found flying a drone in a fire-traffic area now faces 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 changes to flight regulations to accommodate firefighting efforts in California.

Harris encouraged all pilots to continuously check for updated rules and to follow current regulations, including registering drones with the FAA and keeping unmanned aircraft in sight while flying.

Marjorie Kirk: 916-321-1012, @marjorie_kirk