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Science & Environment

California Freeway Firefighting Efforts Hampered By Drones

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Rush-hour drivers faced a terrifying scene in Southern California yesterday. As they sat trapped in freeway traffic outside San Bernardino, a wildfire leapt across the road, forcing people to flee on foot and leaving about 20 torched vehicles behind. The extent of the damage was blamed in part on drones. Sharon McNary of member station KPCC joins us to explain. Sharon, first, could you describe the scene for us?

SHARON MCNARY, BYLINE: Well, Interstate 15 is this broad, broad freeway. It is the major artery that connects southern California to Las Vegas and the rest of the Western United States. And it's busy 24-7, especially on a Friday afternoon when folks are headed out to Sin City for some fun. Some drivers even shot video as they slowly passed by the advancing fire. That highway came to a standstill and, as you said, people abandoning their cars as the fire just got too close.

RATH: How did it surprise people? Was it an especially fast-moving fire?

MCNARY: Well, we're used to brush fires near freeways. Often, they serve as natural breaks for fire. This is in the middle of the Cajon Pass. It's broad, rugged country - not much in it. And fire moves quickly uphill, and there was just not much to stop this brushfire as it raced uphill to the freeway. And it just moved too fast for a few hundred drivers to get out of the way.

RATH: Now, we've heard reports about private drones interfering with the firefighting. Can you explain what happened?

MCNARY: Well, some drones in the airspace near the fire caused the firefighting aircraft to have to pull out of the air for about a half-hour. That stalled about a dozen firefighting aircraft from putting water on the fire or sighting the staff on the ground. Here's Lee Beyer of the U.S. Forest Service.

LEE BEYER: It's frustrating because, you know, in this situation, we have structures threatened, and we have vehicles that are burning. We have major freeways that are closed. And then we have an individual or perhaps several individuals with these hundred to $200 toys that are taking away our ability to reopen freeways or to save vehicles and structures.

RATH: So are these just individuals that flying their drones, they thought there'd be some cool footage to get?

MCNARY: There are a lot of drones out there. People use them as toys. They've got them for their photographic uses. You just see more and more of them out there.

RATH: Sharon, what is the state of the fire right now?

MCNARY: Right now, about 3,500 acres have burned. About 2,800 people remain evacuated from the Baldy Mesa area of San Bernardino County. There's a second fire called the Pines fires about 15 miles west. That caused the evacuation of about 11 campgrounds and hundreds of campers in the Wrightwood area of San Bernardino County. They're at the same evacuation shelter. The fire - the big one's only about five percent contained.

RATH: That's KPCC's Sharon McNary. Sharon, thank you.

MCNARY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.