Personal drone enthusiasts who've considered capturing wildfires from above should think twice, especially in Montana. This week, Governor Greg Gianforte signed SB 219 into law, joining several other states in criminalizing drone operations that obstruct aerial Wildfire suppression.
The freshly inked Montana law asserts that “a person may not obstruct, impede, prevent or otherwise interfere with lawful aerial wildfire suppression response activities by any means, including by the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle system.”
This move follows a troubling rise in drone incursions interrupting firefighting efforts. The National Interagency Fire Center reported 15 such instances in 2022 alone, resulting in 13 shutdowns of aerial firefighting.
The Montana legislation came about in response to a significant disruption last year, when an unauthorized drone caused a crucial delay in firefighting operations during a wildfire event. State officials united in advocating for more stringent penalties as a deterrent.
“Any civilian operation of a drone completely ceases all aircraft firefighting efforts, so it's a big deal that people don't do that,” said Helena Fire Chief Jon Campbell.
Spearheaded by Senator Willis Curdy of Missoula, the law refines existing wildfire suppression legislation by enhancing punishments for those flouting the rules.
Transgressors now face criminal misdemeanor charges, a potential $1,500 fine, and up to six months of imprisonment. Furthermore, they could be liable for additional firefighting costs incurred due to drone-induced disruptions.
Federal regulations already penalize drone interference in wildfire containment efforts, including civil fines up to $25,000 and potential criminal prosecution.
The Federal Aviation Administration's online Drone and Wildfires Digital Toolkit elaborates on the risks of drone usage during wildfire emergencies.
The FAA document emphasizes that, “Firefighting aircraft often fly at the same altitude as drones flown by members of the public and others, which creates the potential for a mid-air collision.”
It warns that unauthorized drones could compel fire managers to halt vital operations, like water or retardant drops, until the airspace is clear and deemed safe from any drone return.
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