Aerial firefighting operations on the Rice Ridge Fire near Seeley Lake had to be shut down for a few minutes today due to a civilian drone.
This fire season there have already been more than 18 public drone incursions, most of which resulted in the temporary shutdown of aerial firefighting efforts.
Flying drones in closed air space around fires is a federal offense. A spokesman for the Rice Ridge Fire says the person flying the drone today was contacted by law enforcement.
Last year, federal fire officials recorded 41 airspace conflicts in the wildland fire community, that’s up from 25 the prior year.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Jordan Koppen says no aerial video or picture is worth the risk to human life.
“It’s a safety issue," Koppen says. "Just think of what could happen if a drone flew into one of these aircraft. You could put multiple lives in danger and we’re trying to stay away from that."
Firefighting choppers and planes aren’t allowed to fly if a drone is spotted where they’re working. And if those aircraft can’t provide cover for ground crews, those crews may also have to be called back.
DNRC’s Koppen says drones were spotted this week near multiple fires in Montana.
“And we want to keep people out of the way of operations. Let the firefighters do their job and do the work that they need to get done,” he says.
Conflicts have already occurred in at least 9 states this year, including the high-profile arrest of a man in Arizona who was charged with 14 felony counts of endangerment after he was caught flying a drone over a fire in Prescott National Forest last month.
To combat the rising incident numbers, the U.S. Department of the Interior has launched an “If You Fly, We Can’t” campaign, complete with videos and PSAs to alert drone owners of the fines and penalties they face for flying in “no fly” zones and interfering with firefighting operations.
Drone owners are also encouraged to download an app for smartphones that notifies users of restrictions in their area.