California Drone Bill Passed by Legislature

California Drone Bill Passed by Legislature

Legislation that would increase fines for drone operators who interfere with firefighters and other emergency responders has passed the Legislature and is headed to the governor for consideration.

State Sen. Ted Gaines’ proposed law would also grant immunity to firefighters and other emergency responders who damage or destroy unmanned aerial aircraft during emergency operations.

Senate Bill 168 passed the Legislature on Friday and was on its way Monday to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown for consideration, an aide for Gaines said.

“To think that someone would interfere with firefighting or emergency response situations to get a sneak peak or to post a drone video on YouTube is an outrage that is deserving of punishment and condemnation,” Gaines, a Republican from El Dorado, said in a statement.

For firefighters, 2015 has been the year of the drone. Unmanned aerial aircraft have been popping up at wild-land fires across the state this year, hindering firefighting operations, destroying property and threatening lives, authorities said. And Southern California — with fires across the San Gabriel Valley foothills to the passes and brush of San Bernardino County — has been no exception.

“Any effort by our elected officials, the public and hobbyists to make the skies safer for firefighters, we definitely appreciate,” said John Miller, U.S. Forest spokesman for the San Bernardino National Forest.

He said that within a five-week period in June and July, there were five drone sightings at four wildland fires in San Bernardino County, and there have been more than a dozen drone sightings at wildfires across the state this year.

“It’s now part of our new reality that everybody has to be on the lookout for these things, which is a place we weren’t in a couple of years ago,” Miller said.

The most recent incident occurred Sunday, when Cal Fire reported that a drone forced the grounding of two air tankers trying to drop retardant on a wildfire fire in Oakhurst in Northern California.

In August, as the Cabin fire raged on the upper slopes of San Gabriel Canyon in the Angeles National Forest north of Glendora, the Federal Aviation Administration enforced a temporary ban on the flying of drones.

That came after a series of fires in San Bernardino County, where drones flown by civilians interfered with major firefighting efforts.

One of the most destructive incidents in San Bernardino County involving drones was the North fire in the Cajon Pass in July, which jumped the 15 Freeway and prompted motorists to exit their vehicles and run for their lives. Twenty vehicles were destroyed and 10 others damaged, but there were no reported injuries.

The North fire was noted in an Aug. 25 letter to Gaines from the California Police Chiefs Association and the League of California Cities, which co-sponsored his proposed legislation.

“At the Cajon Pass, we witnessed a tragedy as dozens of cars combusted. The cause? A civilian drone forced firefighting operations to land, allowing for the fire to grow and jump the freeway,” according to the letter, authored by John Lovell, senior policy adviser for the California Police Chiefs Association and Tim Cromartie, legislative representative for the League of California Cities.

Drones were also responsible for the grounding of firefighter aircraft during the Mill 2 fire in Yucaipa, the Lake fire in the San Bernardino Mountains, and the June 25 Sterling fire, which burned 100 acres east of Del Rosa Avenue in San Bernardino.

In July, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors authorized an expenditure of $75,000 to be used as reward money for anyone providing information leading to the arrest and conviction of the drone operators responsible for thwarting fire-suppression efforts on the North, Lake and Mill 2 fires. The Sterling fire occurred within the jurisdiction of the city of San Bernardino, not the county.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Jodi Miller said Monday that the department has received between 25 and 30 anonymous tips via the We-Tip hotline, but all were found to be unsubstantiated.

Other efforts to crack down were pending. They included:

  • H.R. 3025, known as the Wildfire Airspace Protection Act of 2015 and authored by U.S. Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, would make it a criminal offense to launch a drone that interferes with fighting wildfires on federal land.
  • S. 1608, known as the Consumer Drone Safety Act and authored by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, requires safety features on drones and strengthens Federal Aviation Administration laws that regulate drone operation.