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As drones fly, air support grounded during critical moments of Maria Fire fight

As crews wage an all-out assault on the flames raging south of Santa Paula the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office says if you want to fly your drone, do it somewhere else.

Data shows that aerial firefighting efforts have been shut down at least nine times this year due to drone use and Santa Barbara where firefighters have a stern warning for drone pilots.

The Maria Fire exploded overnight, charring thousands of acres in just hours.

We saw a similar situation unfold earlier this year in Lompoc on a smaller scale. Civilian drones creating a firefighting standstill when time is not on your side.

Santa Barbara County Fire Captain Daniel Bertucelli says the Maria Fire’s overnight growth shows significant fire behavior.

“I believe we have a total of seven engines as well as hand crews and bulldozers assisting the efforts down in Ventura County,” said Captain Bertucelli, Public Information Officer, Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

The crews on the ground create their game plan based on air support.

“A lot of times our strategies and tactics are based upon being able to use air resources and if we get information that we just lost all our air resources because of a private drone in the area we rethink the way we do things,” said Capt. Bertucelli.

Officials say private drones grounded Maria Fire air support twice, for an hour and a half total early Friday.

“They created quite a dangerous situation. It’s not only illegal but it hampers our firefighting efforts,” said Bill Ayub, Ventura County Sheriff.

Bertucelli says pilots and aircrews are already dealing with enough issues. “Windy turbulent conditions, they’re dealing with smoky, low visibility conditions, as well as they’re flying in topography that’s not really conducive for safe flying, it’s steep narrow canyons,” he explained.

So adding in a human element that puts them more at risk is really unfortunate.

“If you fly we can’t so we will immediately ground all aircraft if we see drones flying in the area,” said Capt. Bertucelli.

That delay could have major consequences.

“You could lose homes, firefighters and civilians could get hurt because of that aircraft not being there to assist,” said Bertucelli.

Officials say whoever is responsible for disrupting the Maria Fire could face criminal charges and steep fines.

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