Drone Pilot Arrested For Flying Over Bushfire In California

In the past couple of years, firefighters in California have been incredibly angry that drones are showing up practically every time they try to fight a bushfire. Well, on Friday, officials in the state announced that they have made the first arrest of a drone hobbyist due to his interference with firefighting efforts north of Sacramento. A firefighter near a wildfire in Azusa, California on 20 June 2016 (Associated Press)

On Friday afternoon police officers arrested Eric Wamser, 57, of Foresthill, California. He's being charged with interfering with firefighting operations. Wamser was allegedly taking aerial footage of the fire with his drone, though the model he was using has not been released. Police claim that Wamser posted some of the footage on social media, which helped lead to his arrest.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, there have been over a dozen hobby drones spotted near bushfires in the US so far this year. And according to the US Forest Service, firefighting aircraft in the United States have had to be grounded six times due to hobby drones interfering with their operations in 2016.

"When a hobby drone flies in the path of our aircraft, we have no choice but to pull back our airtankers and helicopters until the drone is removed," Chief Dave Teter, CAL FIRE deputy director of fire protection, said in a statement. "For hobby drone operators, it's pretty simple: when you fly, we can't. No hobby drones over fire zones."

Wamser was allegedly flying his drone over the fire, commonly called the Trailhead Fire, on the evening of June 28. That fire has burned over 5600 acres and is currently 98 per cent contained. The charges against Wamser are a misdemeanour.

"The Trailhead Fire was burning in such a remote area that our aircraft were critical to stopping the fire," Chief George Morris III, CAL FIRE's Nevada-Yuba-Placer unit chief said in a statement. "Every minute we couldn't fly our aircraft because of this drone, the fire was able to grow and do more damage."

The FAA has released a smartphone app called B4UFLY that is intended to be used by hobby drone operators to see if there are any aircraft restrictions in their area before they put up a drone. Bushfires would trigger these kinds of restrictions.

[Wall Street Journal]