FAA Looking into Lake Fire Drones
July 2nd, 2015

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating reports that an unmanned aircraft system prevented firefighters from battling the 30,726-are Lake Fire last week.

U.S. Forest Service and law enforcement officials contacted the FAA last week after the drone downed aircraft for several hours Wednesday.

"The FAA is aware of the reported incident and is looking into it," spokesman Ian Gregor said via email Sunday. "While you don't need FAA authorization to operate an unmanned aircraft for hobby/recreation purposes, the aircraft must be operated so it doesn't pose a hazard to manned aircraft or people or property on the ground."

He added his agency could suggest civil penalties against anyone who violates federal aviation regulations.

Temporary flight restrictions are usually in place during wildfires. But at about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, a drone passed between an aircraft flying at 11,500 feet and a lead plane that was at 10,500 feet.

Aircraft, including airtankers and helicopters, fly as low as 200 feet above ground when battling wildfires, according to the Forest Service. This creates the potential for mid-air collisions that could cause debris to hit people on the ground.

"If (an unmanned aircraft system) is detected flying over or near a wildfire, we will stop airtankers from dropping fire retardant, helicopters from dropping water and other aerial firefighting aircraft from performing wildfire suppression missions until we can confirm that the (unmanned aircraft system) has left the area and we are confident it won't return," Forest Service Assistant Director of Operations Steve Gage said in a statement.

Aircraft had been dropping retardant on the Lake Fire, but gaps were formed in the containment line after they were brought down. This ultimately reduced containment and helped the fire burn another 5,000 acres by Thursday night.

The fire was reported about 4 p.m. June 17 in the San Bernardino Mountains near Big Bear. It's been burning east at a slower rate over the weekend and firefighters had 60 percent of it contained Sunday morning.

It was threatening High Desert communities near Pioneertown. It destroyed a home and three outbuildings near Burns Canyon Road, which is no longer under evacuation orders.

Burns Canyon runs through the community of Rimrock before turning into a dirt road leading into a confined canyon area. It's the only way in and out of the area.

"You'd have to have a four-wheel drive to get into that area," said Lyn Sieliet, a Forest Service fire information officer.

The fire is still threatening homes in that area, as well as in the region to the west near its origin point. According to the Forest Service, 7,390 buildings are threatened.

Officials have not said when they expect to reach containment, but it's not unusual for a wildfire as big as the Lake Fire to burn as long as it has, Sieliet said.

Monsoonal weather conditions are expected to help firefighters by creating humidity and dropping rain onto the fire. But officials say storms may also create lightning that spark new wildfires.

"The risk will go up as we get into the first part of this week," said Brett Albright, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

He said rain, lightning and thunder may be sporadic.

"But sometimes those are the ones that can sneak up and get you too," Albright said.

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