Fire officials say drone spotted over Sand fire could have interfered with aircraft

A drone spotted flying near the Sand fire on Sunday could have endangered firefighting aircraft working in the area, fire officials say.

Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said Monday that sheriff’s deputies located the person controlling the drone and grounded the radio-controlled plane. Flights by firefighting helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft were not affected by the incident, but Tolmachoff said the presence of drones is a concern.

She noted firefighting aircraft typically fly very low. Like a bird strike, she said, a small radio-controlled plane could bring down a helicopter or airplane.

Sgt. Chris Felton of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office said Monday that the incident was still being investigated. Sheriff’s deputies responded after several calls were received reporting a drone near the fire. Felton said the person controlling the drone apparently was a hobbyist looking to take video of the fire.

“It doesn’t appear that it was for commercial purposes,” he said.

Unlike news helicopters that often fly over fire areas, drones are a hazard, Tolmachoff said, “because we don’t know where they’re at.”

Officials directing firefighting operations can stay in communication with news helicopters and direct them to fly at altitudes where they won’t interfere with firefighting aircraft, she said.

“This is definitely something new for us,” Tolmachoff said of drones at a fire scene. “But I don’t think it’s going to be the last time.”

In addition to safety issues, she said, fire officials were concerned that the individual operating the drone shared the video with the media.

If there were a crime scene within the fire area and evidence were captured in the video and shown on television, she said, it could interfere with the investigation.

The popularity of privately owned radio-controlled planes is increasing, but, Tolmachoff said, “A busy fire area with an active fire is not the place to come play with that kind of toy.”

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