Proposed Legislation Will Allow Firefighters to Shoot Drones Over Wildfires

"The legislature needs to send a signal that our society simply won’t put up with this nonsense."

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Jul 22 2015, 7:25pm

Image: USDA

Sometimes it seems like partisanship along party lines has ground the American political system to a halt, but there are still a few things that Democrats and Republicans can agree on. For example, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) and Senator Ted Gaines (R-El Dorado) both agree that if there's a fire and someone's drone is getting in the way of emergency aircraft, firefighters should be able to shoot it down.

Yesterday, Gains and Gatto introduced Senate Bill 168, which grants immunity to any emergency responder who damages an unmanned aircraft in the course of firefighting, air ambulance, or search-and-rescue operations.

"Drone operators are risking lives when they fly over an emergency situation," Gatto, who's also Chair of the Assembly Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection, said in a statement. "Just because you have access to an expensive toy that can fly in a dangerous area doesn't mean you should do it. The legislature needs to send a signal that our society simply won't put up with this nonsense."

Gatto is referring to five different fires last month where fire crews had to pull back aircraft tasked with dumping water and chemicals onto fast-moving flames, including the one involved in last weekend's viral image of a fire suddenly jumping a Los Angeles-area freeway. A drone can crash an aircraft if it hits an engine or a blade, so fire crews can't take the risk.

"There's nothing on the books for drones because this is a rapidly advancing technology," communications director for Assemblyman Gatto Eric Menjivar told Motherboard. "We currently have something in the books like you can't run your car over a fire hose. That's an automatic fine. When cars became common we did stuff like that. Now it's time again to make an update to the law because hobbyist drones are becoming popular."

Earlier this month, the California legislators also supported an amendment to Senate Bill 167, which proposed a $5000 fine and a possibility of jail time to people who fly drones over wildfires or interfere with any kind of fire fighting effort.

As Gains notes in his statement, drones can also be great tools in suppressing fires and other emergency situations in the future, but when used by responding agencies, not hobbyists.

Drones have also allowed citizens and journalists to document everything from protests to factory farms like never before, so it's a potential sticking point to have laws that say that government agencies can shoot them down, while citizens can't.

However, Menjivar told Motherboard there's no reason to worry about Senate Bill 168, which "Assemblyman Gatto and Senator Gaines narrowly crafted to focus on wildfires."

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