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Saturday, August 1, 2015

California freeway fire ..... drones impede fire fighting !!

Often in fire or other disasters, bystanders give maximum trouble curious to see what is happening and hampering rescue works….. now-a-days, more is the trouble with curious onlookers trying to take a snap and upload them on social sites, irrespective of the gravity of the situation !

A wind-whipped wildfire swept over a California freeway, torching nearly two dozen vehicles and sending motorists running for safety. The fire broke out near Interstate 15 in the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County at around 2:30 p.m., and was quickly spread by hot winds that gusted up to 40 mph, fire officials said.Cars and trucks were set ablaze as the flames jumped over the interstate, which is the main highway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Twenty vehicles were destroyed and another 10 were damaged.Motorists driving south on I-15 on Friday afternoon experienced abject terror as flames rushed toward their vehicles, which had been boxed in by stopped traffic.

California's ongoing historic drought is now four years old, causing unease among firefighters about the potential for more wildfires. The freeway wildfire began early Friday afternoon in the mountain desert near Phelan, which is a 75-mile drive northeast of downtown Los Angeles. The fire originated near Interstate 15 just north of California Highway 138. The wildfire ripped through pine, Joshua, and mesquite trees, all exceptionally parched by the drought. The fire is now under investigation.

The North fire, as it was dubbed, started on the western shoulder of the freeway, around two miles south of Oak Hill Road. It quickly spread and engulfed dozens of cars on southbound I-15 that had been abandoned by startled motorists.As firefighters worked to douse smoldering vehicles – including a big-rig truck that had burst into flames – the fire continued its march, threatening homes in the Baldy Mesa area and sparking widespread evacuations. Motorists stuck in traffic described how the fire jumped the freeway and raced up the mountain.

As shocking as the images of vehicles on fire in the Cajon Pass last weekend were, what awaited some motorists who were forced to abandon their vehicles before flames reached them shocked them even more: Towing fees in the thousands of dollars.After angry motorists lashed out over the weekend, local leaders this week did too, looking to crack down on “bandit” tow services that tried to profit off the calamity.“A disaster like the North Fire presents an opportunity for communities to come together and demonstrate compassion and selflessness,” - “Unfortunately, it seems some tow companies took the opposite approach by engaging in price-gouging of motorists whose vehicles had to be removed from Interstate 15. Motorists who had to abandon their vehicles found they were being charged more than $200 an hour by the towing companies that moved the vehicles off the freeway.

There was another new element too – of all the elements they must battle in a wildfire, firefighters reportedly faced a new foe: drones operated by enthusiasts who presumably take close-up video of the disaster.   CNN reported that five such "unmanned aircraft systems" prevented California firefighters from dispatching helicopters with water buckets for up to 20 minutes over a wildfire that roared Friday onto a Los Angeles area freeway that leads to Las Vegas.Helicopters couldn't drop water because five drones hovered over the blaze, creating hazards in smoky winds for a deadly midair disaster, officials said.

Drones hovering over wildfires is a new trend in California, and on Saturday, fire officials condemned the operators of "hobby drones," as officials labelled them. It was unclear Saturday whether authorities would launch an investigation into the five drones."Fortunately, there were no injuries or fatalities to report, but the 15 to 20 minutes that those helicopters were grounded meant that 15 to 20 minutes were lost that could have led to another water drop cycle, and that would have created a much safer environment and we would not have seen as many citizens running for their lives," said spokesman Eric Sherwin of the San Bernardino County Fire Department.The FAA has placed temporary flight restrictions around the wildfires, which means the unmanned aircraft should not fly there without agency approval, spokesman Ian Gregor told CNN by email.

LA Times reported that this was not the first time that drones impeded firefighting efforts. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, personal drones posed dangers to aircraft in at least two fires last year as well.The soaring popularity of hobby drones has already raised concerns about personal privacy and public nuisance. But the potential for serious public endangerment adds a whole new level of worry.Two bills are being introduced in the Legislature to curb this irresponsible use of drones. Both have commendable intentions and would impose policies worth consideration, but given the current status of drone technology and regulation, they seem premature and unlikely to make a significant difference.SB 167 would increase the penalty for flying drones in wildfire zones from the current $1,000 fine to $2,000, or in extreme cases to $5,000.

The bigger problem is the difficulty of finding the operator in order to enforce the law. Without transponders on each drone to identify its owner, and black boxes to record its flights, it can be too easy for the person at the controls to remain unknown. Both of those technologies are readily available, but they are included in very few personal drones, and the Federal Aviation Administration has so far been unwilling to require them.Companion bill SB 168 would release public safety agencies from liability if they destroy a drone during such emergency situations as a wildfire, medical evacuation or search-and-rescue operation. No sympathy for the drone owner, but the bill does nothing to define safe ways for doing this.

So new technology and newer problems !!

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

27th July 2015.

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