Last week the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors established a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any person or persons responsible for the unauthorized use of unmanned aerial vehicles interfering with firefighting efforts.
Third District Supervisor James Ramos offered the initiative and recommended the Board earmark $25,000 per fire from its General Fund contingencies.
The US Forest service has repeatedly warned of the dangers associated with flying drones near areas where wildfires are active. Currently, it is unlawful under the California Penal Code to interfere with firefighters or emergency rescue personnel in the performance of their official duties. Unfortunately, recent firefighting efforts have been hampered and plagued with interference.
On Wednesday, June 17, the Lake Fire began and burned the northern portion of the San Gorgonio Wilderness. It was the first in a recent trilogy of wildfires to have its firefighting efforts hampered by unauthorized drones.
On Sunday, July 12, efforts to suppress the Mill 2 Fire in Mill Creek Canyon near State Highway 38 that ultimately burned 35 acres of steep chaparral were also hampered by unauthorized, unmanned aerial vehicles in the area.
More recently, on Friday, July 17, efforts to contain the North Fire, a wildfire that erupted along the 15 Freeway in the Cajon Pass, were also hindered due to the use of drones.
In each instance the appearance of drones in airspace that was restricted due to the wildfire resulted in the grounding of firefighting aircraft due to safety concerns for both aircrews and bystanders. Even the temporary loss of such critical resources in the firefighting efforts allowed the fires to spread and lead to an increased loss of property. To date the operators of the drones that interfered in all three fire incidents are yet to be identified or apprehended.
As a result of the occurrence of these incidents within the jurisdiction of San Bernardino County and similar occurrences in other areas, the California Legislature is considering Senate Bill 167. The bill would make it a misdemeanor to use or operate an unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system at forest fire sites. Violations would be punishable by a fine in an amount between 200 and 2,000 dollars.
The bill does not stop there. It would also provide that if a person knowingly, intentionally or recklessly violated the prohibition against flying a drone over a fire area, the violation would be punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for up to six months or by a fine of $5,000, or both.
Another bill is also pending, HR3025. This bill would enact a criminal penalty for anyone who knowingly launches a drone near a wildfire and recklessly allows the drone to interfere with fighting a wildfire affecting federal property.
With board approval, the earmarking of $25,000 per wildfire will remain in effect for the period July 28, 2015 to January 28, 2016.
The Voice will continue to follow this story.