Drone almost blocks California firefighting planes (w/video)

  • Bill Cleek looks over the remains of one of his cabins which was destroyed by a fire at his Rancho Cicada Retreat in Amador County, Sunday, July 27, 2014, in Plymouth, Calif. Firefighters in Northern California on Sunday battled a wildfire that has destroyed 10 homes and forced hundreds of evacuations in the Sierra Nevada foothills, while a fire near Yosemite National Park destroyed one home and grew significantly overnight. (AP Photo/The Sacramento Bee, Randy Pench)

PLYMOUTH — A private drone trying to record footage of a Northern California wildfire nearly hindered efforts to attack the flames from the air, but firefighters made enough progress to allow some of the 1,200 people under evacuation orders to return home Monday.

An unmanned aircraft that aimed to get video of the blaze burning near vineyards in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento was sighted Sunday, two days after the fire broke out, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said.

Authorities told the man controlling the drone to stop it from flying because of the potential danger to firefighting planes. The man, whom Tolmachoff did not identify, was not cited.

"This is the first one that I'm aware of," she said. "These unmanned aircraft are becoming very popular with people, and there's a possibility we will see more of them."

Crews held the fire to a little under 6 square miles overnight, increasing containment to 65 percent, state fire Battalion Chief Scott McLean said. Some of the evacuations were lifted Monday morning, but McLean did not immediately know how many people were allowed to return to their homes.

"We're still very cautious," he said. "We're not going to get complacent, but it's looking very good."

The Sierra foothills fire is one of two in California that has forced people from their homes, underscoring the state's heightened fire danger this year after three years of drought created tinder-dry conditions.

The other fire about 100 miles away had burned through a little more than 4 square miles of brush and trees in Yosemite National Park, the neighboring Stanislaus National Forest and private land as of Monday morning and was sending smoke into Yosemite's famed valley.

It grew by about 500 acres overnight and was 5 percent contained, with a relentless air attack limiting its spread, park spokesman Scott Gediman said.

The park itself — home to such sites as Half Dome, Yosemite Meadows, a grove of Giant Sequoia trees and other wonders — remained open, and none of its treasures was threatened. But park officials warned hikers with respiratory problems to be careful because of the smoky air.

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