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Sonoma County considers plan to cite drone operators who hinder emergency response efforts

Drone operators who fly their machines over emergency response situations, interfering with these operations could be cited immediately under a proposed ordinance Sonoma County supervisors are expected to discuss Tuesday.

If ultimately approved, the measure would mean violating drone operators would receive $100 misdemeanor citations for incidents that occur in unincorporated Sonoma County. Repeat violations may result in increased fines between $200 and $500.

Discussion is set for Tuesday’s regular Board of Supervisors meeting in Santa Rosa and, if approved, another vote would take place Aug. 17 for final adoption, according to county staff.

Deputy County Counsel Holly Rickett stressed that the county is not anti-drone, rather, the ordinance focuses on anyone interfering or impeding law enforcement investigations or first responders during major emergencies such as, wildfires or floods.

“There really is a need for local regulation for these departments that provide essential services during public safety events,“ she said.

Although major fires have plagued the North Bay for at least four years, the ordinance is being discussed now because advanced technology has made drones “widely available for commercial reasons and hobbyists fly (drones) for recreational purposes,” according to a staff report.

In recent years, fire officials across the country have lamented drone usage, which has at times gotten in the way of aircraft being used to douse flames during major wildfires, which are particularly prevalent in Northern California this time of year.

Last week, officials said, drones hampered firefighters battling the 30,074-acre Dixie fire in Butte County, about three hours northeast of Santa Rosa.

And most recently in Sonoma County, officials said, drones got in the way of firefighters during the Aug. 2020 Walbridge fire, which burned 55,209 acres.

According to the Boise, Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center, which describes itself as “the nation’s support center for wildland firefighting“ and helps to establish firefighting policy and training efforts, drones have become a significant problem.

In 2020, the agency said, drones were spotted over at least 21 separate wildfires across the country. And, in at least 16 of these encounters, they were the reason why some of the aircraft being used to fight those wildfires were grounded.

Six of those groundings happened in California fires, although none of them were in the Sonoma County region.

While Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshal Turbeville, who is also fire chief of the Northern Sonoma County Fire Protection District, didn’t know of any specific examples of drones interfering with North Bay firefighting efforts, he did acknowledge that they are “an issue for Cal Fire.”

He referred questions about the number of drone-related incidents to Cal Fire’s headquarters in Sacramento. Cal Fire did not immediately respond to requests for information about drone incidents.

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Crystal Essiaw said in an email that any state and local government can create laws addressing drone use. Otherwise, she said, law enforcement officials who suspect drone operators of committing violations may submit information to the FAA for investigation.

“The FAA relies on information from local officials to assist with investigations on drone violations,” Essiaw said, adding her office can’t comment on Sonoma County’s proposed ordinances.

Rickett added that drone complaints also may be forwarded to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution.

But according to a county staff report, “These options fall short of providing adequate tools for swift on-the-ground enforcement actions” whereas local law enforcement are likely to arrive right away.

“For the FAA, it might be never. It’s up to them if they want to respond or not,“ Rickett said.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi

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