Editorials

A wildfire is no place for a drone

Drones, once just for the military, are being used in record numbers by consumers for everything from real estate to agriculture. Lately, though, Californians have been using them to snap pictures of wildfires, frustrating firefighters.
Drones, once just for the military, are being used in record numbers by consumers for everything from real estate to agriculture. Lately, though, Californians have been using them to snap pictures of wildfires, frustrating firefighters. Baltimore Sun

There was the drone in June that stopped firefighters from dropping fire retardant on a huge wildfire in San Bernardino County. There was the drone in July that again delayed air tankers for precious minutes. And then, just last week, there were the five drones that hampered firefighters to the point that a wildfire jumped Interstate 15, sending people running for their lives.

California’s firefighters have had enough. And we don’t blame them. It is irresponsible and dangerous to fly a drone near a wildfire to shoot video to please the YouTube masses. But as the market for consumer-grade drones – small, remote-controlled vehicles with cameras – explodes, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Drones can take down a helicopter if the collision is just right. That risks firefighters’ lives and complicates efforts to control fast-moving flames during this historic drought. On Monday, Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, and Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, aimed two bills at short-circuiting this problem.

Senate Bill 167 would expand upon current state law, which already forbids people from interfering with firefighters on the job. Instead of facing a $1,000 fine, violators would have to pay up to $5,000. Senate Bill 168 would free firefighters and police from liability for destroying a drone during an emergency situation.

How firefighters would take down a drone is unclear. People can fly drones from hundreds or even thousands of feet away, so finding the operators is problematic. Fire officials have discussed blasting them down with water, and Gatto wants to electronically “jam” them, but the first would waste water and the second isn’t technologically feasible for most drones at the moment, although U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, is pushing for “geo-fencing” technology to make them easier to disable in restricted areas.

The real problem with drones isn’t so much inadequate penalties as ignorance of existing laws. The market has grown so much and so fast that many consumers have no clue where they can and cannot fly. The Federal Aviation Administration sets the rules, but until recently hasn’t done a very good job educating consumers about what those rules are.

Many operators, for example, might not know the FAA bans drones above 400 feet, near airports and around temporarily restricted areas, such as the no-fly zones the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection regularly sets up around wildfires.

It’s easy to get fired up about drones, but the best way to get people to dock them is education, not additional state laws.

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