Drone sight­ings cur­tail air drops in Lake fire bat­tle

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Joseph Serna, Paloma Esquivel and Joe Mozingo

As a hot wind shifted north and drove the f lames to­ward Onyx Peak east of Big Bear Lake, fire crews de­ployed to save homes scat­tered among brit­tle- dry pines — wait­ing for help from a DC- 10 laden with 10,800 gal­lons of re­tar­dant.

It never came. Shortly be­fore 6 p. m. on Wed­nes­day, an in­ci­dent com­man­der on the ground spot­ted a hobby drone buzzing near the drop site at 11,000 feet. The air tanker had to turn back, as did two smaller planes fol- low­ing it.

“These folks who are han­dling these drones, I have to as­sume they have no idea what they’re do­ing,” Chon Bri­bi­escas, a spokesman for the U. S. For­est Ser­vice, said Thurs­day. “They not only en­dan­gered the folks on the ground, but they en­dan­ger the pilots.”

Of­fi­cials f ight­ing the Lake fire in the San Bernardino Moun­tains scram­bled to warn the public that it is illegal and dan­ger­ous to f ly drones in re­stricted airspace around a f ire. Un­manned air­craft are par­tic­u­larly haz­ardous be­cause author­i­ties have no idea who is con­trol-

ling them or how they might ma­neu­ver.

The DC- 10 had to di­vert and drop its re­tar­dant on a f ire along the Ne­vada bor­der, while the two smaller planes had to jet­ti­son theirs be­cause they couldn’t land with that much weight. Of­fi­cials said the failed mis­sion cost be­tween $ 10,000 and $ 15,000.

As the planes re­turned to their base by Lake Ar­row­head, pilots spot­ted another drone 1,200 feet above ground, far above the 400foot limit set by the FAA for un­manned air­craft.

“It’s in­fu­ri­at­ing,” Bri­bi­escas said.

Author­i­ties could not lo­cate the op­er­a­tors of the drones. They de­scribed the air­craft that ob­structed the re­tar­dant drops as an or­ange or red fixed- wing drone with a wing­span of 4 feet.

Mike Ea­ton, for­est avi­a­tion of­fi­cer with the U. S. For­est Ser­vice, said po­lice would be pa­trolling moun­tain roads, look­ing for peo­ple f ly­ing drones in the tem­po­rar­ily re­stricted airspace set by the FAA.

Speak­ing at a news con­fer­ence at the San Bernardino Air­tanker Base, Ea­ton urged peo­ple to stay away from the fire. Red f liers were sta­pled around a f ire map that read: “If You Fly, We Can’t.”

Ea­ton said air drops had to be shut down two hours early on Wed­nes­day be­cause of the drone.

“The f ire cer­tainly grew be­cause we weren’t able to drop the re­tar­dant,” said. “We had to shut down sub­se­quent mis­sions that could have pos­si­bly con­tained the fire.”

By Thurs­day morn­ing, the f ire had grown to 23,199 acres and was 21% con­tained. Late in the af­ter­noon it had spread a mile north to Heart­break Ridge.

As un­manned aerial sys­tem tech­nol­ogy has be­come more preva­lent, so have runins be­tween civil­ians us­ing it and gov­ern­ment agen­cies that con­sider it a dan­ger. The U. S. For­est Ser­vice is­sued a state­ment last year on civil­ian drone use, warn­ing that it could in­ter­fere with fire­fight­ing ef­forts.

In July 2014, CalFire crews had law en­force­ment con­front a drone op­er­a­tor near Ply­mouth in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia af­ter he f lew the air­craft near a 3,800- acre blaze as crews made wa­ter drops.

While it’s illegal for civil­ians to op­er­ate air­craft in re­stricted space, f ire­fight­ers are be­gin­ning to use drones for their own pur­poses.

The U. S. For­est Ser­vice re­quested a drone from the Depart­ment of De­fense in 2013 to help sur­vey the Rim fire, one of the largest blazes in state history. The drone helped map where the f ire was go­ing and kept track of crews at night.

This week in the San Bernardino Na­tional For­est, f ire­fight­ers have fo­cused on con­tain­ing the blaze south of High­way 38 in the San Gor­gonio Wilder­ness area, pre­vent­ing it from climb­ing up the moun­tain­side be­hind the Snow Sum­mit and Bear Moun­tain ski re­sorts and threat­en­ing the com­mu­ni­ties around Big Bear Lake.

The f ire sent a mas­sive plume of smoke north­east, blan­ket­ing much of south­ern Ne­vada and the eastern edge of Cal­i­for­nia.

John Miller, another For­est Ser­vice spokesman, said con­di­tions for the next few days look dicey. Spo­radic winds from in­com­ing storms, as well as light­ning, could po­ten­tially trig­ger more wild­fires.

And he said the dry con­di­tions from the drought are caus­ing the f ire to burn dif­fer­ently. Nor­mally, large trees slow fires down, but be­cause they are so parched, they are burn­ing fast, more like hill­side cha­parral.

“What this fire is show­ing us is that this is not a nor­mal f ire sea­son,” Miller said. “There is noth­ing nor­mal about the way the fu­els are burn­ing and are be­ing con­sumed.

“We’re see­ing fire ac­tiv­ity above 10,000 feet that we haven’t seen in years.”

Manda­tory evac­u­a­tions were in ef­fect for the high desert com­mu­ni­ties of Burns Canyon and Rim­rock, north­east of the fire.

Fire­fight­ers were try­ing to per­suade res­i­dents of Burns Canyon to leave, even though the veg­e­ta­tion — and po­ten­tial fuel load — is much sparser.

The dusty area is served by a sin­gle nar­row road. If the f ire made a turn to­ward the com­mu­nity, a f lat tire could stop oth­ers from get­ting out.

A cou­ple of miles east in Rim­rock, res­i­dents de­cided to stay put among the Joshua trees, de­spite the bil­low­ing cloud of white smoke that gath­ered not too far in the dis­tance.

Some soaked their roofs and packed their trucks, just in case.

Norm Erick­son, 59, sat out­side mon­i­tor­ing the f ire and made sure that 4,000gal­lon wa­ter tanks were filled for fire­fight­ers. The 30year res­i­dent of this quiet com­mu­nity said he hadn’t ex­pected the blaze to get close to his neigh­bor­hood.

“It was on the other side of the moun­tain,” he said. “I didn’t think they’d let it get that far, though it’s pretty in­ac­ces­si­ble ter­rain they’re work­ing with.”

He said he had been sur­prised when he heard some­one had f lown a drone into the fire area. If the blaze con­tin­ued to burn out of con­trol, Erick­son said, “they’ll be re­spon­si­ble for it.”

In the moun­tains just out­side of Big Bear, the San Bernardino County Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment ad­vised res­i­dents in Lake Wil­liams, Er­win Lake and Bald­win Lake to be pre­pared to evac­u­ate.

But in town, life moved along at its nor­mal lan­guid sum­mer pace.

“It sounds like f ire­fight­ers have it un­der con­trol,” said Judy Hous­ton, work­ing at the Gold Rush Re­sort in Big Bear Lake.

She said she’s been get­ting f ire up­dates through Face­book and other web­sites, and isn’t wor­ried about the shift­ing winds ex­pected this week­end.

“The storms could be a bless­ing,” Hous­ton said. “If they’re any­thing like the mon­soon storms we get, then it could bring a good down­pour.” joseph. serna @ latimes. com Twit­ter: @ josephserna paloma.esquivel@latimes.com Twit­ter: @ palo­maesquivel joe. mozingo @ latimes. com Twit­ter: @ joe­mozingo Serna and Mozingo re­ported from Los An­ge­les, Esquivel from Rim­rock. Times staff writ­ers Ruben Vives in Big Bear Lake and Veron­ica Rocha in Los An­ge­les con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Gina Ferazzi Los An­ge­les Times

MANDA­TORY evac­u­a­tions were in ef­fect for the com­mu­ni­ties of Burns Canyon and Rim­rock.

Gina Ferazzi Los An­ge­les Times

WINDS WHIP through palm trees and smoke bil­lows from the Lake f ire as tourists take a self ie at the di­nosaur ex­hibit in Cabazon, Calif.

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