Ban proposed after drones interfere with wildfire efforts

A firefighter in Lake County, California, July 30, 2015.
Max Whittaker | Reuters
A firefighter in Lake County, California, July 30, 2015.

Drought-stricken California has one more more thing to worry about: drones.

As wildfires continue to rage on the west coast, firefighters are not only faced with high temperatures, strong winds and arid conditions, but drone pilots who are flying their crafts too close to the blazes.

The US Forest Service estimates that on 13 occasions this year drones have interfered with a firefighting aircraft, forcing efforts to be diverted from the wildfires.

While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has the authority to fine drone operators for this interference, it is difficult for the agency to track down pilots and hold them accountable.

But, that could change.

U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen proposed the Wildfire and Emergency Airspace Protection Act, a bill to criminalize recreational drone pilots who interfere with disaster relief efforts, on Oct. 7.

"On far too many occasions, drones have put the lives of first responders at risk as they conduct disaster relief efforts," Shaheen said in a statement. "And especially as wildfires become more frequent and extreme, firefighters should be able to fight these blazes from the air unencumbered."

A previous bill proposed in California was opposed by companies like Amazon, Google and GoPro and was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown because it restricted all drones from flying less than 350 feet above property without permission from the property owner.

Shaheen's bill, however, restricts recreational drone use—not agricultural or professional—during times of natural disasters.