USA– CA- Following an explosive summer in which drones repeatedly got in the way of pilots fighting wildfires and nearly slammed into a medical helicopter, a bill taking aim at them soared through Sacramento late Friday on the final, marathon day of the 2015 legislative session.
Looking ahead, sponsors say they are hopeful Gov. Jerry Brown will sign the measure into law despite his veto last week of another drone bill that dealt with privacy. He has until Oct. 11 to make a decision.
Two bills actually had addressed the emerging problem of wildfire-fighting interference. One called for slapping violators with fines and jail time. The other sought to give firefighters immunity should they take out a drone by jamming signals or other means.
The measures were merged in Senate Bill 168, which passed the Assembly 79-0 and the Senate 40-0. The bill contains an urgency clause, which means it will take effect immediately if signed.
It should be a slam dunk in my view, said Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado, one of the principal authors, in a telephone interview Monday. Weve got firefighters in peril. Weve got firefighting pilots in peril. Weve got air ambulances in peril. Clearly, I think he should sign it. Were at a crisis point.
Another primary sponsor, Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, drew Assembly colleagues attention Friday to July 17 television footage of motorists jumping out of burning cars on I-15 and running for their lives, in making a case for the legislation.
I think the image is seared in most peoples minds of the people down in the Cajon Pass having to flee their cars on the freeway because the wildfire had jumped the freeway and was heading towards occupied vehicles, Gatto said. The reason, of course, why the wildfire jumped the freeway was because firefighting efforts had to cease because drones were spotted in the area.
Folks, when hobbyists fly a drone near a firefighting effort, they not only endanger the lives of the firefighters, they endanger the lives of all the people on the ground as well.
Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear Lake, added that, in the case of the North fire, there wasnt just one drone in the air at the time but five.
There was no choice except to ground the firefighting aircraft because we cant put our first responders lives at risk, Obernolte said. Thats just an unacceptable consequence of drone activity.
So lawmakers are trying to get operators attention by making it a crime to fly a drone in a way that interferes with helicopters making water drops and air tankers painting hillsides the bubble gum color of fire retardant.
Violators could be fined up to $5,000 and jailed as long as six months.
And if their drones were destroyed in the process, they couldnt go after the firefighting agency to recoup damages. Gatto said the legislation would give firefighters and other public officials the authority to take out a drone that is spotted near a wildfire.
The North fire aside, a drone also was spotted in June over the San Bernardino National Forest as helicopters and airplanes battled the Lake fire. Pilots said the sighting grounded aircraft at a crucial time and contributed to a surge in the blazes growth. The Lake fire would eventually torch nearly 50 square miles, including much of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, popular with hikers and horseback riders.
Drones also were spotted near two other, minor Inland Southern California fires.
Sightings have continued to bedevil firefighting pilots throughout drought-stricken California all summer long, and yet another one temporarily grounded aircraft over the weekend on a fire at Oakhurst south of Yosemite National Park. On Aug. 12, a drone came within 20 feet of a helicopter transporting a patient to a Fresno hospital, forcing the pilot to take evasive action, according to media reports.