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Toy drone disrupts aircraft fighting California wildfire

Toy drone disrupts aircraft fighting California wildfire

Firefighters protect an evacuated home while the fast-moving wildfire called "Sand Fire" burns behind, near Plymouth, California on July 26, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Max Whittaker

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) – A private drone trying to film a wildfire that has charred nearly six square miles in Northern California briefly disrupted firefighting efforts, although workers had gained the upper hand against the blaze, officials said on Monday.

Fire officials spotted the drone over the so-called Sand Fire on Sunday and immediately called police to find the drone’s owner and have the toy grounded to avoid a possible mid-air collision, a California fire official said.

“That drone was flying within our air space and was a hazard for our aircraft,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Kevin Lucero. “It essentially inhibited some of our operations going on.”

The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office told the Sacramento Bee newspaper that it was investigating the incident. It said the drone’s owner was a hobbyist trying to film the blaze.

Despite the disturbance, crews had built containment lines around three quarters of the fire by Monday night, up from only 35 percent on Sunday evening, CalFire said. Some residents who were forced to flee their homes ahead of the flames were allowed to return on Monday.

But CalFire cautioned that the blaze was still burning in steep, dry terrain that made fighting it more difficult and that they did not expect full containment until Friday.

The Sand Fire, which erupted in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento on Friday, has scorched more than 3,800 acres. One firefighter has been injured.

Nearly 2,000 firefighters backed by air tankers have been deployed against the blaze, working in nearly triple-digit temperatures, high winds and extremely low humidity.

California is facing one of its most severe droughts on record, with wide swaths of the nation’s most populous state under “exceptional drought,” or the most severe rating issued by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

About 180 miles to the southeast, a 2,600-acre wildfire on the western edge of Yosemite National Park was about 5 percent contained on Monday and one structure had been destroyed, the U.S. Forest Service said.

The blaze was burning close to where the 2013 Rim fire seared some 250,000 acres in the central Sierra Nevada region.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, additional reporting by Curtis Skinner in New York; Editing by Eric Beech, Eric M. Johnson and Paul Tait)

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