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California Firefighters Forced To Call Off Missions After Drone Interference


In California, drones are interfering with firefighting. Fire officials have had to call off several operations to drop water and flame retardant on wildfires because private drones were hovering in the air space, apparently shooting video footage of the fires. Five drones were spotted over last weekend's San Bernardino County fire that engulfed Interstate 15. Those drones could cause a disastrous accident. Jennifer Medina has been writing about this for The New York Times, and she joins me now.

And Jennifer, first, whose drones are these? Why exactly are they there?

JENNIFER MEDINA: We don't really know specifically whose drones they are. One of the interesting things about drones is, there's no real way to know who's the owner and who is operating it from the ground. What we do know is that they're presumably hobbyists who are just interested in seeing what the fire looks like. As surely everyone knows, fires are huge and hard to see and really grasp from the ground, and an aerial shot is sort of this thing of horrific beauty. So presumably they're trying to capture that either to post to YouTube or perhaps to sell to news organizations.

BLOCK: Now, drones are tiny. What are the risks that they pose to airplanes or helicopters that are trying to make drops of flame retardant or water?

MEDINA: So firefighters say that no matter how tiny these things might be, they can get sucked quite easily into the propeller of a helicopter or an engine of an airplane and cause the aircraft to go down quite quickly. They also say they can lose their attention in a moment where every second that they're operating matters.

BLOCK: Well, there's now legislation that's been introduced there in California to respond to this problem of drones in that airspace. What would that legislation do?

MEDINA: There's two pieces of legislation that legislators here are pushing. One would increase fines and criminal punishment for people who operate and interfere with a fire using a drone. Another would give firefighters or law enforcement the ability to scramble the signals of a drone so that they would have the ability to take it out of the sky the moment they notice it.

BLOCK: There are critics of those ideas though. They say they're premature and also just might not work. What are the problems that they see?

MEDINA: Nobody knows what it would look like if you would take a drone out of the sky right away and how those things would - the mechanics of how that would play out and how it would work.

BLOCK: Jennifer, have you been able to talk to any drone operators who would defend their right to shoot above wildfires like this?

MEDINA: I spoke to several drone operators, and interestingly, none of them really defended the right to do this. They all sort of felt like they had worked quite hard to establish a better reputation for drone operators and show that they're responsible actors and they know what they're doing and they're safe. And they refer to people who do something like this as idiots who really tarnish their reputations and put people's lives at risk. One person I spoke with, who's actually a professor of drone journalism, said, look, there is an argument to be made that there's news value and public interest value in this kind of footage, and we should find a way to work out ways that drones can operate.

BLOCK: Wait a minute, Jennifer - did you just say professor of drone journalism?

MEDINA: I did indeed.

BLOCK: That is a field I know nothing about...

MEDINA: (Laughter). Me neither.

BLOCK: ...But fascinating. Jennifer, thanks so much for talking to us.

MEDINA: Thank you.

BLOCK: Jennifer Medina is a national correspondent based in Los Angeles for The New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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