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Harsher punishments sought after drones interfere with firefighters

Once again an irresponsible drone user puts lives and property at risk. You are begging for government intrusion with this behavior.

Drone interfere California wildfire firefighters
Credit: Don McCullough/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Many of you probably saw the news reports on Friday of a fire here in the southern California desert area that engulfed dozens of cars and burned thousands of acres. It makes for a good one-day story, especially on a slow news Friday.

What many of you may not have heard is that the fire was made significantly worse by a bunch of idiots flying their drones overhead and interfering with water-dropping planes and helicopters. This is not new. It's merely the latest in a string of irresponsible incidents involving drones.

Drones are the latest geeky toy that have rapidly advanced from merely carrying a GoPro camera to now a potential delivery vehicle for Amazon. But like anything else, they can be misused.

In the case of the fire – which took place on Interstate 15, the main highway between southern California and Las Vegas – this was more than misuse. This was reckless disregard. According to a U.S. Forest Service spokesman, all air units had to pull back and dump their loads of water and fire retardant before returning to the San Bernardino airport.

The drones are seen as a hazard to the planes, so the airspace must be closed to fixed-wing aircraft if they are seen in the air. And there were five – yes, five – drones hovering over the fire.

"It can kill our firefighters in the air ... They can strike one of these things and one of our aircraft could go down, killing the firefighters in the air. This is serious to us. It is a serious, not only life threat, not only to our firefighters in the air, but when we look at the vehicles that were overrun by fire, it was definitely a life-safety threat to the motorists on Interstate 15," John Miller of U.S. Forest Service told NBC 4 in Los Angeles. 

Of the five drones, three wisely got out of there, but two drones actually gave chase to air units, which delayed the response by about 15 to 20 minutes, according to Battalion Chief Marc Peebles of the San Bernardino County Fire Department. This allowed the fire, which started as a single car fire, to jump the freeway and engulf many cars, including a car carrier that looked to have six vehicles on it.

This is far from the first incident. Three weeks ago, drones delayed the combating of a fire near Big Bear Lake. A DC-10 tanker converted to fight fires had to turn back with 10,800 gallons of fire retardant, which cost the state $10,000.

Late last year, CBS reported that the Federal Aviation Administration gets up to 25 reports a month from pilots of drones flying too close to their planes. Now, a drone vs. a 777 or even a 737 isn't much of a fight, unless the drone gets sucked into an engine. Then the plane is endangered, obviously. Yet in 2014 there were more than 200 incidents. 

And in one case, a drone operator lost control and their drone smashed into a triathlete during a competition, sending the athlete to the hospital.

To quote the Internet meme incorrectly attributed to "The Big Lebowski," you drone owners are a special kind of stupid, aren't you?

California legislators are now going after these idiots. One representative has introduced a bill that would make it a criminal offense to interfere with firefighting efforts on federal land. Separately, an assemblyman and a state senator are looking to increase the penalty for interfering with firefighting efforts from a $1,000 fine to a maximum $5,000 fine. Ars Technica spoke to State Senator Ted Gains, who is also looking to add up to six months of jail time if the drone interference is considered intentional and reckless.

For now, the increased penalties are aimed at the stupid user, which I am all for. But that doesn't change the fact that we shouldn't need these laws to begin with if there was even a hint of common sense.

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