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Supervisors take step closer to limiting drone usage during emergencies

Drone operators could soon receive a citation if they’re caught interfering with authorities during emergency operations in Sonoma County.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took its first step toward OKing an ordinance that empowers law enforcement personnel to issue misdemeanor citations to drone operators who get in the way during emergencies such as wildfires or floods.

A brief discussion by the board ended with a unanimous 5-0 vote in favor of the measure, which will return Aug. 17 for final approval.

Under the ordinance, first-time violators could be fined $100. Subsequent violations would carry increased fines between $200 and $500.

Tom Rennie, who described himself as a drone operator of six years, was the lone speaker during the meeting’s public comment segment.

He urged supervisors to raise the fines so that they not only reflect a Sonoma County fire’s frequency and its level of devastation, but also are a memorable and appropriate punishment for irresponsible operators who try to make money off the footage they obtain using drones.

“This is a serious thing. It needs to be $10,000. It needs to be treated like a DUI,” he said. “A $100 fine is nothing to (violators).”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins thanked him for “holding the bad apples accountable” and did not rule out his suggestion.

“If we start to see a lot of these violations and it’s not taken seriously, absolutely, let’s increase that fine,” she said.

Though major wildfires have been a regular occurrence in the North Bay for years, county staff said the ordinance was proposed because of the uptick in drone activity among commercial businesses and private operators.

In recent years, fire officials have said drones have created hazards that have forced them to ground aircraft that were being used to battle blazes.

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.

Sonoma County staff emphasized the ordinance pertains to anyone interfering or impeding law enforcement investigations or first responders during major emergencies.

“If you own a drone and you’re not doing that, interfering, you don’t have anything to worry about with this ordinance?“ Supervisor Chris Coursey asked for clarification.

Deputy County Counsel Holly Rickett said yes.

Currently, the county refers violations to the Federal Aviation Administration or Sonoma County District Attorney’s office for investigation or prosecution.

But according to Sonoma County staff, the proposed ordinance is expected to ensure a quicker and more-efficient response by law enforcement in hopes of deterring violations right away.

An FAA spokeswoman told The Press Democrat on Monday that state or local governments may create laws addressing drone usage at their own discretion.

The spokeswoman, Crystal Essiaw, said FAA staff don’t comment on proposed ordinances.

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

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