Officials in San Bernardino County, California, are ready to charge some drone operators with murder because their flying machines have kept firefighting planes grounded during recent wildfires.
District Attorney Mike Ramos offered a $75,000 bounty for information leading to the arrest and conviction of drone operators who interfered with three wildfires earlier this year.
“We will hold you responsible, we will prosecute you for murder. Keep your drone at home, or we will prosecute you.”
Small, unmanned drones could cause serious damage to an air tanker in a midair collision, much like a bird might if it got caught in the engine or flew through the windshield.
That’s why the firefighting planes were kept grounded after officials noticed unmanned drones circling above the wildfires.
During the Lake Fire, 20 badly-needed aircraft were kept grounded after drones were seen flying above and below a firefighting airplane about to drop fire retardant.
“To do an evasive maneuver at that speed, that low, it could present problems.”
The grounded planes weren’t able to drop their fire retardant, and the wildfire grew out of control, resulting in the injury of six firefighters and the loss of 31,000 acres, along with one house.
The firefighting airplanes were kept grounded three more times during recent wildfires that caused serious injuries and millions of dollars of damage.
The worst was July 17, when the North Fire burned 4,250 acres and destroyed 7 homes, 16 outbuildings, and 44 vehicles. The Mill 2 Fire and the Sterling Fire burned 135 acres together.
“Fires spread faster and further because of the drones out there, we have said to keep the drones away from the fire, but they have ignored us; they know their drones are putting lives at risk.”
State and federal lawmakers are both considering bills that would make it illegal to fly drones over wildfires on public land. Anyone convicted would be forced to pay thousands of dollars in fines and spend years in jail.
The FAA has proposed rules regulating the use of drones, but they’re not likely to take effect for a couple years yet.
Prohibitions include flying over 400 feet, near airports, or over crowds of people. The agency expects to require licenses for operators, and says more than 7,000 businesses will probably apply for the needed permits.
Anyone with information about the drones flying over San Bernardino wildfires is encouraged to contact the district attorney.