Senator Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) has announced that she has co-authored bipartisan legislation by Senator Ted Gaines (R-El Dorado), Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) and Assembly Member Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) to make it a serious state crime to fly a drone over a wildfire. Recent incidents have endangered the lives of firefighters and highlighted the need for the state to act.
“Firefighters face tremendous risk and the last thing they need is to have a drone get in their way and potentially cause a catastrophic crash of public safety aircraft,” said Bates, who is a member of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management. “That is why we need to make it crystal clear that flying a drone in a fire zone is unacceptable and will be strongly punished. A person’s hobby should not put the lives of our firefighters at risk.”
Bates co-authored Senate Bill 167 that would make it unlawful to operate a drone in a manner that interferes with the efforts of firefighters to extinguish a fire. Violators could be punished by imprisonment in a county jail of up to 6 months and/or a fine of up to $5,000. Existing law says it is a misdemeanor to interfere with the lawful efforts of a firefighter to extinguish a fire, which is punishable by a fine of only up to $1,000.
SB 167 comes in response to numerous reports indicating that private drones operating over wildfires have interfered with reconnaissance or tanker aircraft dedicated to containing those blazes. The planes were forced to reroute or land, and in some cases they had to discharge their flame-retardant loads in areas not affected by fire. U.S. Forest Service officials have also voiced concerns that drones could interfere with the deployment and safety of the “smokejumper” crews who parachute into remote wildfire areas.
Bates strongly supports SB 167 and recognizes the potential opportunities presented by drone technology to enhance public safety. Bates participated in a hearing conducted by the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management today that heard from state emergency responders and drone industry representatives on the dangers and potential benefits of drones in emergency situations.
“With further research and appropriate guidelines, drones can help first responders to fight wildfires and respond to other incidents,” said Bates. “However, California must have zero tolerance for those who fly drones in fire zones that endanger our firefighters. We must act now to help prevent a potential tragedy that could take the lives of first responders and others.”