Firefighters from Cal Fire, San Bernardino Fire Department, and the U.S. Forest Service continue to combat the expanding 25,599-acre lake fire that started on June 17 in the San Bernardino mountains of California with a reduced fire containment of 19 percent from 27 percent last Wednesday night.

With the cause of the wildfire still under investigation, it continues to spread north toward Heartbreak Ridge and could burn for another week. It has now an estimated cost of more than $17 million, according to fire officials.

During a news conference at the San Bernardino Forest Airtanker Base, forest aviation officer Mike Eaton stated that the lake fire grew significantly because private drone flights disrupted the air attack operations. The effect of the lost time, as air tankers returned or changed course, could let the flames slip through the untreated terrain.

"These folks who are handling these drones, I have to assume they have no idea what they're doing. They not only endangered the folks on the ground, but they endanger the pilots," said Chon Bribiescas, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service. Fire officials assembled the media together to spread the word to the public: "If you fly, we can't."

One of the air tactical group supervisors encountered an unmanned aerial vehicle around 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The drone flew between an aircraft flying at 11,500 feet and a lead plane at 10,500 feet, with only a 500-foot separation.

Eaton identified the drone as red or orange in color with about a four-foot wingspan. It was hovering illegally in Temporary Flight Restricted Airspace.

"We're not able to track the aircraft back to its source or whoever was controlling it," Eaton added.

The drone delayed the aerial firefighting operations and the aircraft dropped the retardant on the fire by Thursday. During that time, smoke had grown into an enormous cloud, which could be seen for miles across the High Desert and Coachella Valley.

As unmanned aerial system technology has become more widespread, disagreements have also increased between private owners and government agencies that claim the drones are potentially dangerous. The U.S. Forest Service issued a warning last year to civilians piloting drones regarding possible interference with firefighting efforts.

Photo: Ed Schipul | Flickr

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