The FAA said on Monday, that hobbyist drones are becoming a problem in the California wildfires that continue to burn. So far at least two drone incidents have been reported in which unauthorized amateur drones were interfering with firefighters.
Earlier last week in the Santa Rosa area, where the mail was still being delivered after the fires had gone through, there was a drone incursion reported. Last Sunday Cal Fire helicopters were halted in Petaluma after a drone had been spotted.
Two drone incidents reported
The latest victim in the Northern Californian wildfires is a water tanker driver, who was killed in a crash in Napa County, bringing the total death toll up to 41 people. Ian Gregor, a Pacific Division spokesman for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration told CNBC in an email statement.
“We received two reports of incidents in which people flew drones in fire areas. We will look into both.”
Authorities have said that hobbyist drone incursions pose a serious safety risk to the pilots of airplanes and helicopters fighting fires. On Sunday The Petaluma Police Department stated that a drone flew over the Petaluma Airport and prevented the Cal Fire helicopters from flying out to the fires in Sonoma and Napa counties. Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said:
“Over the years, we have seen this problem become a trend. When drones are flying in the same airspace we’re trying to use firefighting aircraft, like helicopters and air tankers, for the safety of our pilots we’ve got to pull those aircraft out of the sky and land them.”
The drone incursions do not only form a hazard to the pilots but they also jeopardize the safety of the crews and residents on the ground. As the aircraft are grounded the fires continue to spread. Berlant continued:
“The potential for a fire to grow larger and do more damage during the time we can’t use firefighting aircraft while that drone is in that area exists. That’s why it’s critical that we educate and ensure that the public is not flying their drones over our aircraft or over fires.”
Unlike the first drone incident, the second one in Petaluma on Sunday resulted in an arrest. a 24-year-old resident was arrested and questioned about the incident. He stated that:
“he did not realize it was illegal.”
According to the FAA reckless interference with firefighters or other emergency operators is subject to civil penalties from the FAA of up to $20,000 per violation.
Drone interference with firefighters or other emergency operators has become a problem nationally that continues to grow as more and more people are getting their hands on affordable hobby drones. Reported drone incidents are up from 12 cases in 2015 to 42 incidents in 2016
Several counties have been affected by the fires that have scorched over 220,000 acres and destroyed around 5,700 residential and commercial buildings, including entire neighborhoods. The wine country is also hit hard with at least 10 vineyards with significant damage in Sonoma and Napa counties, the heart of the Californian wine country.