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Drones: A New Public Safety Threat
The California drought has brought dry conditions that have primed hillsides and canyons for a brutal fire season. But perhaps the biggest threat this year isn’t from the dry brush on the ground – it’s the drones in the air. In the last six weeks, firefighting operations in the San Bernardino mountains have been hampered by hobbyist drone pilots.
First, the air attack on the Lake Fire was impacted when a hobbyist drone with a four-foot wingspan flew between two attack aircraft. Planes were grounded for two hours, and fire crews lost containment on the fire as a result. Days later at a brush fire on the north end of San Bernardino a drone suspended operations for a period of time. Two weeks ago as the Mill 2 fire burned in Mill Creek Canyon, the air attack had to be momentarily suspended because of a small drone. Most recently, five drones hampered the crews working to contain the North Fire that swept across the I-15 freeway in the Cajon Pass, destroying some 20 vehicles.
These events point to a disturbing trend: hobbyist drones, which can be purchased for about $500 and operated without any certification process, are increasingly causing problems for public safety.
In the case of aerial firefighting, drones have the capability to damage fire aircraft, endangering the lives of firefighters in the air and on the ground. Drones can also delay the response to a fire, resulting to potential damage to property and civilian life.
As the popularity of drone ownership has increased, regulations have lagged far behind. However, there are several bills in Congress and the California Legislature aimed at fixing that. They would make operating a drone in the area of a fire a serious offense, and one would allow first responders to take down drones (it’s not clear how that would be accomplished, however).
But more regulations won’t help. The FAA has a list of safety guidelines for recreational drone operators. Fly no higher than 400 feet. Do not operate in close proximity to groups of people or over stadiums. Do not fly within five miles of an airport without contacting the airport first. The problem is that hobbyist drone owners are all too often blissfully unaware that their gadget poses a threat to the safety of others.
Hobbyist pilots need to educate themselves regarding the rules of flying drones. The improper operation of drones has become a safety threat to the public, and it must be addressed.