California officials arrested a man last July 15 due to suspicions of flying a drone near a forest fire northeast of Sacramento.
The hobbyist drone operator, 57-year-old Eric Wamser, was detained by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection after they found videos of a wildfire taken from a drone that was allegedly posted by Wamser on social media.
While Wamser was later released, he received a charge of one count of misdemeanor for his interference with firefighting operations. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, hobbyists who fly drones over forest fires could be fined for up to $27,500 in civil penalties.
Wamser could also be facing prosecution from the federal authorities for entering restricted air space, said Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant.
According to Berlant, Wamser's arrest is the first one in California over the interference of a drone in firefighting operations.
While Wamser only flew the drone to capture pictures and videos of the forest fire, his actions carried a much greater repercussion against the efforts to control the blaze.
The presence of Wamser's drone in the scene of the wildfire forced authorities to ground firefighting aircraft for 30 minutes on the evening of June 28, which is when the forest fire in Trailhead started. Drones in flight present the risk of collisions and crashes, which could take down the aircraft of firefighters that are tasked to spray fire retardant or release water into wildfires. As such, when drones are spotted flying over forest fires, firefighters have no choice but to wait for the drone to vacate the area before they send in their aircraft.
According to Cal Fire unit chief George Morris III, every minute that they lost in being forced to prevent their aircraft from flying due to Wamser's drone meant more time for the wildfire to grow. The aircraft was very much needed due to the fire being located in a remote area.
According to officials, hobbyist operators may not know the risks and repercussions of flying their drones over wildfires. That may have been the case for Wamser, who may have only wanted to take pictures of the forest fire, but his actions could have caused more damage instead.
The reputation of drones has been battered due to reports such as this. However, it should be noted that drones also have many helpful applications, such as in a recent report that says drones will be used to assist the endangered black-footed ferret population.