USA — San Bernardino County supervisors on Tuesday approved $75,000 to be used as reward money for information leading to the arrest and conviction of illegal drone operators who forced the grounding of aerial firefighters during recent wildfires in the San Bernardino Mountains and High Desert.
Its an issue that is drastically affecting first-responders in tackling fires here in San Bernardino County, Board of Supervisors Chairman James Ramos said.
The Board of Supervisors approved the allocation on a 4-0 vote. Supervisor Robert Lovingood was absent.
U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Miller said there have been five drone incidents in the last six weeks that hindered firefighters in their attempts to battle wildland fires. During the North fire, in the High Desert and Cajon Pass, aerial firefighting efforts were hindered for 26 minutes when a drone was spotted hovering in restricted airspace.
But the issue is not new. Miller said the Forest Service has been discussing and preparing for the problem of unmanned aircraft at wildland fires for more than a year.
Who would have imagined that out of 155 national forests spread across this country, that we would have four fires in San Bernardino County on the San Bernardino National Forest, with five drone incidents, Miller told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. Outside of this county, we have had one incident involving a recon aircraft in Northern California. So just as it has been somewhat a surprise to the county, it also has been for us.
The North fire ignited near the 15 Freeway in the Cajon Pass on July 17, jumping the freeway and destroying or damaging 30 vehicles. Five drones were spotted above the fire, and planes and helicopters dropping flame retardant or water on the blaze were ordered away from the area for the pilots safety, officials said.
Drones were also responsible for the grounding of firefighter aircraft during the Mill 2, Lake and the June 25 Sterling Fire, which burned 100 acres east of Del Rosa Avenue in San Bernardino.
The Lake fire was reported about 4 p.m. on June 17, burning more than 31,000 acres on the eastern flank of the San Bernardino Mountains, destroying one home, three outbuildings and causing minor injuries to six firefighters, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Pilots preparing to drop retardant on the blaze were forced to jettison their load, turn around and land after spotting an orange or red drone that cut between two of the planes at an elevation of about 12,000 feet.
Federal law mandates that drones fly no more than 400 feet in altitude.
The continual presence of drones at wildfires in the last month has prompted elected officials to propose legislation cracking down on illegal drone users.
On July 10, Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, introduced his proposed Wildfire Airspace Protection Act of 2015, which would make it a federal offense to fly a drone that interferes with firefighting operations on federal lands.
Ten days later, state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado, announced he was planning to propose legislation that would essentially grant immunity to any emergency responder who damages an unmanned aircraft in the course of firefighting, air ambulance, or search-and-rescue operations.
And on July 21, Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia, announced he would be co-authoring proposed legislation that would impose civil penalties for operating an unmanned aircraft in the vicinity of a forest fire, as well as criminal penalties for doing so intentionally.
The countys $75,000 allocation will be divided into thirds, with $25,000 being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the drone operators responsible for grounding aircraft at the three most destructive wildfires: the North, Mill 2 and Lake fires.
A news conference will be held at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the U.S. Forest Service Tanker Base at San Bernardino International Airport, where Supervisor James Ramos, Sheriff John McMahon, Forest Service spokesman John Miller, and District Attorney Michael Ramos, will further discuss the reward and the potential destructive impact drones have on battling wildfires.
It hampers the first responders and the safety of the residents of San Bernardino County, but it also endangers the lives of firefighting personnel and first responders as they respond to do their job of protecting the community and protecting this county, Ramos said during Tuesdays board meeting. Were watching, were vigilant, and we wont tolerate that type of activity.
Supervisor Curt Hagman suggested that the county consider drafting an ordinance that would address privacy issues associated with drone use and establish restrictions on where they could fly, such as over peoples backyards, where a certain amount of privacy is to be expected. He suggested researching existing federal and state laws as a guideline.
Supervisor Josie Gonzales agreed. I have great concerns as to how do we begin to identify an outline by which everyone needs to adhere to have safety as a priority, the respect for individual privacy rights this is a whole new, unexplored arena, she said.
Other areas also need to be examined, said Gonzales, such as what damages utility companies such as Southern California Edison are facing should drones became entangled in power lines.
So these and many other issues, I believe, are new areas of concern, Gonzales said.
Miller used the downing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009 as an example of the problem firefighters are facing with drones. In that incident, birds flew into both engines of the jet, forcing the pilots to make an emergency water landing on the Hudson River, in New York City.
We all saw on television that it was a flock of geese that put that aircraft down in New York, Miller said. It wouldnt take much, at the speeds and elevation that our aircraft fly during wildland fires, to cause a catastrophic event, killing our firefighters and endangering the safety of the public.