Nighttime operating water-dropping helicopters operating in Ventura County, southern California were forced to halt their operations for nearly two hours on Friday morning due to the presence of unauthorized, privately operated drones flying over the 10,000 acre Maria blaze, the Los Angeles Times has reported.
Emergency services are concerned that the illegal drone operations could collide with firefighting helicopters, causing serious damage.
According to the LA Times, a Ventura Fire Department chopper pilot radioed in at 3:19 am on Friday that a drone was spotted operating over the fire, prompting a 45 minute halt to local air operations. At 4:05 am, another drone was spotted, with two more choppers grounded for another hour to make sure the coast was clear. Time is of the essence in battling the Maria blaze, which was only 20 percent contained as of Saturday morning, and which has already led to the evacuation of nearly 11,000 people since starting on Thursday.
Later in the day, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub issued an appeal to drone operators, urging them not to fly their equipment near wildfires. “I encourage in the strongest terms anyone interested in doing that to not do so,” he said, speaking to reporters.
“It’s illegal and it creates a very dangerous environment and hampers our firefighting efforts,” Ayub added.
The Federal Aviation Authority has already warned private drone operators not to operate their drones near California’s wildfires, threatening to fine violators up to $20,000 per violation.
Firefighters have been battling wildfires exacerbated by high winds across the state of California starting last month, with the Kincade fire in Sonoma County affecting over 77,000 acres and destroying of over 200 structures. In the south, the Tick fire in Los Angeles County and the Maria fire in Ventura County have affected over 15,000 acres of territory combined.