Drone sighting halts some firefighting efforts in Northern California

Despite legislation on the governor's desk about them and pleas from state and federal firefighting agencies to ground them, drones continue to appear during wildfires with the latest incident cropping up Sunday in rural Northern California.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, a drone forced two fire retardant-dropping air tankers and three helicopters to abandon their efforts over a blaze off Highway 41 near Sundance Road in Oakhurst.

Though small, a wayward drone that falls from the sky could injure someone on the ground, or if it was caught in a plane propeller or engine, damage the aircraft or cause a crash, authorities say.

Though crews were able to limit the fire’s growth to about 13 acres, it could have been worse, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Karen Kanawyer.

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“If you have an irresponsible person flying a drone out there, the potential is there,” she said. “Someone will lose their home. All their memories – everything is going to burn up because we don’t have that other tool from our toolbox. A fire can turn catastrophic in the blink of an eye.”

A drone encounter earlier this year in San Bernardino County brought renewed focus to the issue. When firefighters in June were battling the Lake fire east of Big Bear Lake, a drone forced a DC-10 with nearly 11,000 gallons of flame retardant to change course and drop its cargo on another fire near the Nevada border.

Drones interrupted firefighting efforts during two more fires in the forest there over the summer, authorities said. In response, the San Bernardino County supervisors offered up to $75,000 for anyone who can help identify the pilots in each incident.

The state Senate on Friday sent the governor a bill aimed at keeping drones from interfering with firefighters and emergency crews.

The bill by Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Rocklin) would protect officials from liability if they use jamming devices to knock drones out of the air. It was approved by a unanimous vote.

Farther south, meanwhile, crews increased their containment of the state's largest active wildfire -- the Rough fire burning in Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks in the Sierra Nevada.

The fire, which threatened ancient sequoias as it crawled south last week, has burned 138,053 acres and was 40% contained Monday morning, the U.S. Forest Service said.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.

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