Drones interfered with helicopter water drops
Civilian drones interfered with firefighting helicopters carrying out water drops on Friday 17 July, causing wildfires to spread onto the Interstate 15 freeway in Los Angeles, California Reuters

A fire department in California is calling out civilian drone operators for endangering lives after drones interfered with wildfires that spread to a Los Angeles highway over the weekend.

The North Fire, a fast-spreading bush fire that raged across Southern California on Friday 17 July, eventually spread to the Interstate 15 Freeway in the Los Angeles area, causing terrified motorists to have to abandon their vehicles and flee for their lives on foot up to a nearby hill for safety.

Fortunately no one was hurt, but firefighters from the San Bernardino County Fire Department say that the wildfire could have been prevented from spreading onto the freeway if civilian drones not got in the way.

Drones caused blaze to spread onto highway

Fire officials told CNN that five unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) were spotted hovering in mid-air over the blaze.

Add the drones to the hazy smoke-filled winds from the fire, and the hazard presented was too risky for the helicopters. As there was no one to drop water on the blaze, the fire raged out of control and got onto the freeway.

"Fortunately, there were no injuries or fatalities to report, but the 15 to 20 minutes that those helicopters were grounded meant that 15 to 20 minutes were lost that could have led to another water drop cycle, and that would have created a much safer environment and we would not have seen as many citizens running for their lives," said Eric Sherwin, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

The operators of the five drones have not been caught as the firefighters said they were more concerned with trying to contain the fire, so it is not known why they were there, although it is likely that civilians wanted footage of the blaze, or hoped to sell it to news agencies.

Drones appearing at the sites of natural disasters is becoming a trend in the US – in June, a mystery drone caused a fire in the San Bernardino National Forest to get worse by interfering with a water drop. That drone operator was not found either.

FAA needs to impose fines without warning

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has set up restricted flying zones around the wildfires, and so far, it has been relying on civilians to comply with the rules.

However, the FAA is now thinking about imposing fines of between $1,000 to $25,000 (£642 to £16,054), but it will only do so after it has contacted a drone operator once and the drone operator has ignored the warning.

This approach could still put lives at risk as it is difficult to catch the drone operators in the middle of the chaos of a disaster, and by then the damage could have been done.

As with the recent cases of civilian drones in near misses with commercial aircraft and drones hitting people on the head, lawmakers around the world need to consider drone legislation before disasters strike.

Certainly for the motorists affected by the freeway fire, it is cold comfort, and there are now numerous cases of the drivers being charged exorbitant towing fees by companies that towed their cars to safety during the emergency.

The San Bernardino County Fire Department reported on Twitter at 9am PDT on 20 July that the North Fire was 95% contained.