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California man arrested for flying drone over wildfire near Sacramento

Jun 25, 2016
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From California man arrested for flying drone over wildfire near Sacramento

Law enforcement officers working for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) arrested Eric Wamser (PDF), a 57-year-old Placer County man, last Friday for flying his drone too close to a wildfire burning north of Sacramento, California.

Wamser’s arrest is the first of its kind in the state.

The incident occurred on the evening of June 28 when the Trailhead Fire broke out. A drone was spotted above the fire, so authorities temporarily grounded firefighting aircraft for about 30 minutes.

“Once sunset occurs, we are not able to use our aircraft,” Cal Fire spokesperson Daniel Berlant told the Los Angeles Times. “We needed to make as many drops as we could before sunlight went away. And at that point we had not been able to make access to the fire line on the ground, so the aircraft were critical.” While the Trailhead Fire is now nearly fully contained, the Times notes that it ultimately “burned 5,646 acres in steep, heavily forested canyons, forcing hundreds of residents of Placer and El Dorado counties to evacuate.”

Wamser was not charged with flying a drone specifically, nor has he been penalized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but rather he was charged with a more general misdemeanor for “interfering with firefighting efforts.” He was discovered as the drone pilot after he posted some images from the drone on social media. Cal Fire and Placer County law enforcement did not say how they discovered the social media posts, but a Cal Fire spokesperson speaking to Ars suggested Wamser had posted a video and that it had been publicly available. Local news outlet KCRA reports that Wamser had posted a video on Facebook.

“The video has since been taken down and will be used as evidence by the Placer County District Attorney's Office,” KCRA reports.

Wamser apparently spoke to KCRA but did not want to appear on video. The California man said “he’s embarrassed about the mistake he made that night,” and he “wanted to see how close the flames were, so he sent the drone up directly over his home for about two minutes.”

Forestry and firefighting officials have been increasingly concerned about hobby drones flying over wildfires. Drones have become more prevalent, and firefighting aircraft, which generally fly low over the area they’re working, are particularly at risk for being struck. Several incidents occurred in California last year, leading lawmakers to call for stricter penalties for drone pilots. But California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed those new penalties in October.

This year, several incidents have occurred in California, Arizona, and Utah in which drones caused firefighting planes and helicopters to be grounded. In Utah, lawmakers passed a bill to allow firefighters and law enforcement to forcibly down drones that appear in temporary restricted flight areas.

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