Following repeated disruptions to wildfire suppression in southern Utah, lawmakers have increased penalties for flying drones over an active wildfire and authorities now have permission to disable or destroy the pesky unmanned aircraft.
A lightning strike on a mountainous ridge southwest of the small town of Pine Valley, Utah started a fire that has now been burning for over a month, threatening residents and destroying nearly 2,300 acres of coniferous trees in the Dixie National Forest. While the blaze was naturally occurring and not human-caused, someone has repeatedly slowed fire control efforts and put homes and lives at risk by flying hobby drones nearby.
When a drone is spotted near a wildfire, attending fire crews will ground all aircraft needed to fight the blaze. This is due to the risk of the unmanned drones colliding with a human occupied fire control aircraft and damaging a helicopter’s rotor blades or being sucked through the intake. Any collision of the two aircraft would risk the safety of the individuals flying the helicopter along with those on the ground.
Every minute counts
Every minute counts when fighting wildfires. When fire suppression aircraft are grounded even for a brief amount of time, wildfires can shift and grow rapidly which further hinders any chance of containment. The containment of the Saddle Fire in southern Utah has seen multiple delays due to drones flying in the restricted area. Following the first delay the fire grew and moved quickly, causing an evacuation order to be issued for the residents in Pine Valley. Following these and many other wildfire suppression delays, laws have now been changed.
Penalties for drones near wildfires
The drone bill HB0126 signed last Wednesday now allow authorities to jam a drone’s signal to bring it down and increase charges to: a class B misdemeanor for flying in a restricted wildfire area; a class A misdemeanor if fire crews have to ground an aircraft; a third degree felony if a drone collides with an aircraft; and a second degree felony if a drone causes a fire suppression aircraft to crash. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert tweeted the following statement following the bill signing: “Today’s special session vote sends a strong message to Utahns that we will not tolerate reckless drone interference near wildfires.”