Raging Valley fires could mean swift new drone laws

Helicopter battles fires in California Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Cal Fire authorities said several aircraft had to be diverted because of drones

In some parts of Northern California it's hell on earth.

Wildfires are rampaging through California, destroying homes. Officials here say there could be worse to come.

As if the struggle wasn't great enough, the vast Valley fire containment effort is being hampered. Drones being flown near the huge blazes are disrupting the flights of aircraft being used to control the fires.

On Sunday, the LA Times reported, several wayward drones forced "two fire retardant-dropping air tankers and three helicopters to abandon their efforts".

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection - or Cal Fire, for short - blasted the "irresponsible" drone operators.

"Someone will lose their home," Karen Kanawyer told the newspaper.

"All their memories - everything is going to burn up because we don't have that other tool from our toolbox. A fire can turn catastrophic in the blink of an eye."

On Friday, Cal Fire posted a public service announcement to YouTube urging hobby drone users to stay away from the fire. The slogan is simple: "If you fly, we can't."

A dedicated tip line - 1-844-DRONE11 - has been set up for Cali residents to report suspected drone pilots.

New laws

But aside from asking nicely, what else can authorities do?

Not much else, but that could change dramatically in the next couple of weeks.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Drone enthusiasts could face six months in prison if found to be interfering with rescue efforts

A bill hurried through by California State Senator Ted Gaines aims to give greater powers against drone use.

Specifically, it wants to make it possible for firefighters to knock drones out of the sky by using electronic jamming, without fear of being sued for compensation.

The bill, if passed, would mean California's drone operators would face six months in prison if found to be flying a drone in a manner that hindered the efforts of emergency services.

Before it can become law, it has to be signed off by California governor Jerry Brown.

It has unanimous political support - the California State Senate voted 40-0 in the bill's favour (the full text of which can be read here).

State of emergency

But that doesn't quite make it a done deal.

Just last week Governor Brown slapped down a separate proposed law (SB-142), which sought to restrict drone use.

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson - who represents Santa Barbara County - wanted to make it illegal to fly a drone below 350ft (107m) above private property.

Governor Brown said the law in its proposed form would give rise to "burdensome litigation", and called for more discussion on the subject before a decision was made. The drone community welcomed the delay over that particular issue.

But Governor Brown has until 11 October to make a decision on this latest bill - though given the scale of the crisis, he could sign it off sooner.

If he passes it into law, an urgency clause added because of the current state of emergency means the new powers would come into effect immediately.

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC

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