Criminal law

A new Montana law adds a criminal penalty for flying drones near wildfires


HELENA — Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed a bill into law that spells out penalties when someone interferes with firefighting aircraft by flying a drone in the area. Leaders said the state’s current laws make it difficult to deal with these incidents.

“There was definitely some ambiguity as to who had the ability to prosecute previously,” said Matt Hall, chief of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s fire protection bureau.

when A wind-driven wildfire is burning on Mount Helena Last August, aerial firefighting operations were delayed for about ten minutes due to an unlicensed drone. It’s just one example of the problems caused by “drone incursions.”

“It has a huge impact on our ability to suppress a fire, especially when it’s in an urban interface area,” Hall said.

Previously, Montana law imposed a civil penalty for operating a drone that interfered with aerial firefighting, based on costs of disruption. Senate Bill 219, sponsored by Sen. Willis Cordy, D-Missoula, created a misdemeanor felony with a fine of up to $1,500 — and a violator could still be charged with firefighting costs.

“This gives law enforcement the jurisdiction and discretion to make a professional determination of obstruction, and then leaves it up to the prosecution to pursue,” Hall said.

The change also ensures law enforcement can take stronger action to remove the drone from the air if necessary, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said.

“If you fly your drone into an area where aerial suppression efforts are underway, we will use whatever means necessary to take that drone out,” he said.

Even a small drone can have a big impact on what firefighters are able to do.

“Firefighting aircraft include many planes, helicopters and air tankers, and they fly as high as 150 feet above the ground, which is the same altitude that many amateur drones fly,” Hall said. “So incident commanders will have to ground those aircraft to avoid possible mid-air collisions with drones, which really affects the safety and efficiency of the overall firefighting effort.”

National Interagency Fire Center official reports 15 public drone strikes across the country in 2022, and the Mount Helena fire was the only one listed for Montana. However, Dutton told MTN they also had issues with a drone In the fire Staff died Several weeks ago.

“A lot of times, there are firefighters stationed, and everything is organized,” he said. “If you let the fire get out of control, homes are at risk. More importantly, lives are at risk.”

Federal government It also has its own rules against drones interfering with efforts to put out wildfires — with civil penalties, including fines of up to $25,000, and possible criminal prosecution.

Hall encouraged drone pilots to check For important information about the responsible use of drones.

The best advice as we move into fire season is to respect firefighters, Dutton said.

“You are welcome to come to the command center, ask about the fire incident commander, and talk to them about the right time to get a picture from your drone,” he said.

SB 219 had an immediate effective date, so the new law will be in effect when wildfires break out this year.


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