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Climate and Environment

Illegal Drones Can Block Wildfire Response Teams. Here's How Officials Want To Keep Those Drones Away

An airplane that looks like a passenger jet dumps what looks like a red cloud over hills covered in trees.
A firefighting jet drops fire retardant at the Alisal Fire in 2021. Such efforts are put on hold when drones enters an emergency area.
(David McNew
Getty Images)
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After the driest winter on record in California, coupled with the current drought, fire officials are already bracing for a challenging fire season.

But massive wildfires can also draw drones, operated by users who want to see the flames close up.

They might snap some good photos, but these gadgets can obstruct efforts to extinguish flames in emergency situations.

To help firefighters work without disruptions, the Los Angeles County Fire Department has teamed up with the L.A. branch of the FBI in order to launch a drone deterrent program, which enables officials to quickly identify unauthorized drones and get them out of the sky.

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Why Are Drones A Problem?

During a wildfire, firefighters often use aircraft, including planes and helicopters, to release water and fire retardant on the flames in an effort to slow down their progress.

But when an unauthorized drone flies into an emergency area, these efforts are put on hold. Unidentified gadgets pose a threat to the aircraft and its passengers, said L.A. County Fire Capt. David Laub.

“We don't know who the operators are. We don't know what level of expertise they have. We don't know what they're going to do,” Laub said. “If one of those drones strikes one of our airships, that could cause that airship to crash and cause a lot of damage.”

The fire, meanwhile, rages on, leaving properties, the environment and people at risk.

The fire department and the FBI use a special sensor, which lets them know when an unauthorized drone enters an emergency area. James Peaco III, an FBI agent based in L.A., said officials can locate the drone within 30 seconds. It can also determine the drone’s elevation, direction and speed, along with the operator’s location.

Once drone operators are located, officials order them to take down the machine. They also explain that flying a drone into a wildfire is a federal felony.

"I'm happy that the overwhelming majority of the people that we contact,” Peaco said, “are compliant and apologetic and didn't realize the very negative effects that they're flying.”

What questions do you have about Southern California?