USFS: Drone use can hamper air firefighting efforts

California lawmakers introduced new bills aimed at preventing people from flying unmanned aircraft over wildfires.

Drones grounded firefighting efforts for nearly half an hour last week as flames spilled onto a major highway, burning vehicles and forcing motorists to abandon their cars on the freeway.

Dramatic moments played out as the fire spread across Interstate 15 in California. Drivers were trapped in a traffic jam; many had to abandon their cars and just take off on foot. About 70 cars were burned, two of them semi-trailers, and a boat.

Fire officials say for 26 minutes during a critical time in the firefighter, the air attack was paralyzed as crews had to ground their helicopters and airplanes because of five drones flying over the flames.

"If you fly, we can't," said Carrie Templin with the Tonto National Forest.

Forest officials in Arizona are keeping an eye on the drone problems in California. They say if they cannot communicate with the pilots of any aircraft in the wildfire zone, they cannot fly.

"When we can't talk to somebody, we don't know where they are, we don't know what they're doing, where they're going, the only thing we can do is keep firefighters in the air safe is to put them on the ground," said Templin.

Templin says commercial, and private pilots normally check for any wildfire activity or restrictions before taking off.

"If we have a fire, we put in a temporary flight restriction... most drone pilots or hobbyists probably don't even know that exists, and wouldn't even know there is a TFR," she said.

Drones have not been an issue in any local wildfires so far.

"As popular as drones are becoming it's probably just a matter of time. So the message is, please don't fly a drone in or around a fire, because if you're flying a drone we may have to ground all our aircraft until it is safe for us to fly," said Templin.

It's unclear if California fire officials plan to launch an investigation into the five drones flying over the fire.

The two bills created target people who fly drones over wildfires; one bill would expand penalties including jail time. Another would allow firefighters to destroy drones that in the way of firefighting efforts.