By Congressman Paul R. Cook
It seems that every day a new wildfire is reported somewhere in our state, striking fear in the hearts of rural homeowners. As we enter the 2017 fire season in California, it’s important to consider ways to make our communities safer and minimize the loss of life and property in the event of a catastrophic fire.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a number of devastating fires across San Bernardino County. Last year’s Blue Cut Fire, in the Cajon Pass, scorched 37,000 acres, and destroyed 105 homes and 213 structures. The year prior, the Lake Fire burned 31,000 acres and took over a month to extinguish.
To make matters worse, this year’s fire season is already outpacing 2016. According to Cal Fire statistics, through the first six months of last year there were 22,709 wildfires, totaling 30,574 acres. However, this year, during the same period 2,905 wildfires were reported over an area of 68,129 acres. It’s no easy task to battle these fires, in light of the triple-digit temperatures, unforgiving terrain, and strained resources. Thankfully, our local, state and federal firefighting agencies are there to defend our communities.
Recently, the presence of remote-controlled drones in the airspace above wildfires have complicated firefighting efforts. Whether these drone operators have malicious intent or not, these devices cause major disruptions to aerial firefighting capabilities. During the North Fire of 2015, all firefighting aircraft were grounded over fears of collisions with drones. The inability to utilize aerial assets resulted in the fire jumping Interstate 15 and destroying over 20 vehicles in the Cajon Pass. Thankfully no lives were lost that day.
Grounding firefighting aircraft due to drone incursions isn’t unique to California. A number of fires in Arizona, Colorado, and Utah were also impacted by drone activity. As the popularity and capability of these unmanned aircraft increases it’s become readily apparent that we must take action to protect lives, homes and our environment, by restricting drone usage.
After listening to the concerns of fire officials and local residents, I have introduced the Airspace Protection Act of 2017 (H.R. 1138) in Congress. This bill would make it a felony offense to operate a drone that interferes with wildfire suppression on federal land. Under the provisions of the measure, anyone convicted of this offense would be subject to five years in federal prison. I’m optimistic that it will gain the support of my colleagues in Congress, so that our firefighters on the front lines have the best chance to protect our communities.
In the meantime, you and your family can take steps to increase your chances of surviving a major wildfire. Creating a defensible space around your home is a crucial component to fire safety. California law requires homeowners who reside in a State Responsibility Area to create a 100 ft. buffer zone around inhabited structures that is free of flammable debris. It’s also important to have emergency supplies, and an action plan prepared, in the event of an evacuation. I encourage you to visit the CalFire website, http://www.readyforwildfire.org to learn more about wildfire safety. In addition, CalFire recently launched a new application for smartphones called “Ready for Wildfire” that provides users with critical wildfire alerts. It can be downloaded free of charge from the Apple and Google Play stores.
The most important step you can take to avoid tragedy during major free is to follow the instructions of all public safety personnel. While the thought of losing your home is horrifying, it isn’t worth losing your life I wish you and your families a safe fire season.