Consumer drones interfere with CA firefighting efforts

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Los Angeles county firefighters battle a wildfire  in Wrightwood, California, July 17, 2015.  The wildfire is one of several in California over the past month where firefighting efforts have been partially disrupted by people flying private drones. Photo by Gene Blevins/Reuters

Los Angeles county firefighters battle a wildfire in Wrightwood, California, July 17, 2015. The blaze is one of several recent California wildfires in which firefighting efforts have been disrupted by people flying private drones. Photo by Gene Blevins/Reuters

When a fire that started in the hills northeast of Los Angeles spread to Interstate 15 Saturday, drivers were forced to flee their cars because of flames that eventually destroyed 20 vehicles.

A rare rainstorm helped to control the wildfire, which is now about 60 percent contained, but not before private drones flying over the wildfire grounded firefighting aircraft for almost half an hour.

Saturday’s incident marks the fifth time in a month that firefighting operations have been temporarily grounded by a private citizen flying a drone.

In the past month, drones have gotten in the way of firefighters in San Bernadino County, the Plumas National Forest and, most recently, Interstate 15, which connects Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

A July 12 incident at the edge of the San Bernadino National Forest grounded firefighters’ air tankers for eight minutes.

“That may not seem like a huge amount of time, but in a fire emergency every minute counts,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Carol Underhill told the Associated Press.

Part of the conflict between private drones and public safety is a lack of clear, legislated regulation around what drone owners can and cannot do, partly because the tecnology is relatively new.

State lawmakers in California are currently drafting a bill that would impose heavy fines and potential jail time on anyone whose personal drone interferes with firefighting efforts.

California law currently states that interfering with firefighters is a misdemeanor, but the proposed legislation would severely heighten that punishment.

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