You've probably seen the photos by now: a massive wildfire caused an apocalyptic scene on Interstate 15 at the Cajon Pass in California yesterday. Dry conditions sparked the blaze at 2:30PM PT, and it quickly grew before crossing the freeway later that after afternoon and destroying over 20 vehicles.
But it turns out firefighters might have been able to better contain the flames were it not for recreational drones. Crews spotted five drones in the area of the fire, and the firefighters were forced to ground their aircraft until the drones stopped operating in the airspace.
#NorthFire (Update) Firefighting aircraft has been grounded due to drone activity in the area pic.twitter.com/aVkx5Ud2JU— SB County Fire (@SBCOUNTYFIRE) July 17, 2015
Drones can wreak havoc since firefighting aircraft fly so low when they perform water drops. As a US Forest Service spokesperson tells ABC, "As soon as we see drones, we shut down all of our aircraft for the safety reasons ... If a drone got sucked into a wing or a propeller, that could have some serious impacts."
Officials say that ground crews had to find the drone operators and tell them to stop flying around the fire before aircraft were able to continue attempts to control the blaze. In all, the incident delayed efforts by roughly 26 minutes — valuable time as wildfires can quickly grow out of control.
On the freeway right next to the huge fire pic.twitter.com/UeSwmI38XW— Austin Stefanovich (@Ausdboss) July 17, 2015
According to Battalion Chief Marc Peebles of the San Bernadino Fire Department, the delay "definitely contributed" to the fire hopping the freeway. He told the local Los Angeles NBC affiliate that some of the drones gave chase to firefighting aircraft.
This isn't the first time drones have interfered with firefighting operations. In fact, officials say its the fourth time in as many weeks that such an incident has occurred. In this case, it appears that the drones were flying at legal altitudes in an area that's known to be popular for recreational drone operators. Unfortunately, that just so happened to be right next to the wildfire, and the operators, against their better judgement, just couldn't help but get a closer look.