Potentially key missions in the attack on a 36-square-mile wildfire burning in the mountains east of Los Angeles were grounded Wednesday after a drone passed within about 500 feet of a firefighting aircraft.
Crews attacking the Lake Fire in the San Bernardino County mountains were forced to land all fixed-wing aircraft at around 6 p.m. when the drone was spotted in the Onyx Summit area, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The fixed-wing drone, also known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), with a 4-foot wingspan passed below a firefighting aircraft with about 500 feet of separation, according to authorities.
"It kept us from delivering about 5,000 gallons of retardant, plus subsequent missions," said Mike Eaton, San Bernardino National Forest aviation officer. "The big part is we had to shut down subsequent missions that could have contained that south side of the fire."
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Helicopters continued to battle the fire.
The Lake Fire area was declared a Temporary Flight Restricted airspace (TFR). The order from the Federal Aviation Administration requires aircraft operators to be in communication with firefighting authorities.
The drone operator was not in communication, Eaton said.
The south side of the Lake Fire, burning in steep terrain, was being attacked at "very high altitude" during the sighting, Eaton said. The drone had an estimated 4-foot wing span and could have caused significant problems for pilots, he said.
"This is no different from a bird that could be made of metal," Eaton said. "We weren't able to track it back to its source. We lost it in the confusion of getting everybody out of the area."
Law enforcement officers will be in the area Thursday, when planes resumed flights.
Additional evacuations were also ordered as the San Bernardino mountains blaze grew to 36 square miles since it began June 17.
About 360 campers are being evacuated from Camp Oakes in the Lake Williams area, according to officials. Mandatory evacuations also were ordered for the Burns Canyon and Rimrock areas. Voluntary evacuations were underway in other areas.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is helping to relocate the campers, with an evacuation center set up through the American Red Cross at Big Bear Community Church in Big Bear.
All hiking trails into the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area are closed.
Containment figures changed overnight, dropping from 27 percent to 21 percent. The fire pushed north toward the Rainbow Lane area. The south side of the fire burned in steep and rocky terrain.
The cause remains under investigation. The cost to battle the blaze has now topped $14 million.
Highway 38 from Angelus Oaks to Lake Williams remains closed; Jenks Lake Road and Maple Lane in Big Bear Lake are also closed.
Firefighters have responded to more than 2,400 fires across California since the start of the year, about 400 more than last year at this time. The state has averaged about 1,600 fires for the last five years through June, according to Cal Fire.
Four years of drought have heightened wildfires concerns due to dry brush that provides fuel.