california fires napa fire drones

Stop flying drones over the California fires. It’s probably illegal

Stop flying your drones over the California fires and subsequent devastation. Why?

Here’s the short answer: the U.S. government says so.

And here’s the long answer:

A large amount of space in the Napa area is currently under a NOTAM, including airspace over NapaSanta Rosa and Petaluma. A NOTAM is short for notice to airmen, and is something filed by the FAA to alert pilots of hazards in areas they are flying in.

Under the restrictions of those NOTAMs, “no pilots may operate an aircraft in the areas covered by this NOTAM.”

The NOTAMS are effective through Nov. 13 “to provide a safe environment for fire fighting aircraft operations,” according to the text of the NOTAMs.

“The FAA warns unauthorized drone operators that they may be subject to significant fines if they interfere with emergency response operations,” according to a message posted on the Federal Aviation Administration’s website. “Flying a drone without authorization in or near the disaster area may violate federal, state, or local laws and ordinances, even if a Temporary Flight Restriction is not in place. Allow first responders to save lives and property without interference.”

To check for yourself, visit to the Know Before You Fly site map, powered by AirMap. That data is sourced directly from the Department of Interior’s incident command system.

“It’s critical that airspace is clear for first responders to fully focus on their aerial efforts, including search and rescue and distribution of fire retardant,” said Pablo Estrada, VP of Marketing at Dedrone.

In most states, including California, which is where fires in both the southern and northern half of the state have torn through the past week and have killed at least 30 people, interfering with firefighting activity is considered a crime. And yes, flying a drone near a fire is considered “interfering with firefighting activity.”

A number of media outlets, ranging from the New York Times to Mashable, have published images and videos showing the fires and subsequent devastation. Though, this isn’t to suggest all the images you see published from the fires are illegal. Aircraft can fly in areas covered by a NOTAM if they are properly accredited news representatives and, prior to entering that area, a flight plan is filed with the appropriate FSS or ATC facility specified in the NOTAM.

But drone experts estimate that a number of them are illegal.

“For some pilots, the value of being the first to capture footage and tell a story may be higher than the cost of following FAA, FEMA, or first responder’s instruction,” Dedrone’s Estrada said. “Curious and wandering pilots may be tempted to capture video, but need to understand the risks and damage they could cause, as well as the federal laws they may be in violation of should they send their drone into the sky.”

Dedrone is a San Francisco-based company working on an “anti-drone” platform that can identify drones through passive sensors, including RF/WiFi, microphones and cameras. The company claims it can then map the flightpath, identify the communications protocol of the drone, and locate the pilot.

However, while Dedrone can detect the pilot, there is really no legal way in the U.S. to force the drone out of the sky.

It is a federal crime to interfere with or manipulate a drone, even if you are a first responder and a drone is posing an immediate distraction.

“A firefighter can’t use a hose to spray a drone out of the sky,” he said.



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