New legislation proposed to add criminal penalties for those who fly drones over wildfires and interfere with operations is making progress in Montana. Senate Bill 219 to “revise wildfire suppression laws,” with Democratic Sen. Willis Curdy as its primary sponsor, had its third reading on February 10. The vote was 37 YEA and 10 NAY with 3 other legislators excused.
Senate Bill 219 would designate flying a drone over a wildfire as a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,500 and six months in jail. Those charges could be made in addition to civil penalties, according to the Helena Independent Record.
Curdy described incidents near Helena last year in which drones interfered with firefighting operations and prosecutors said the drone pilots could not be prosecuted. The bill passed the Senate Natural Resources Committee unanimously after an amendment from Republican Sen. Barry Usher that would allow law enforcement to “use reasonable force” to disable a drone — including the authority to shoot down a drone.
Sen. Daniel Zolnikov of Billings cautioned that drone pilots unaware of the law and without the intent to interfere with operations might be unjustly punished, and the law wouldn’t stop all drone incursions into restricted airspace.
“We work really hard to fly safely,” Curdy told the Senate Natural Resources Committee. “We work really hard to keep our firefighters safe on the ground, and I think this bill’s intention is to move it in that direction.”
The Independent Record also noted that federal law prohibits interfering with firefighting aircraft, but this bill is specific to state and county jurisdiction. It has drawn universal support from firefighters and law enforcement personnel, who cited numerous incidents in which drones have required suspension of aviation operations, including incidents last year on both the Matt Staff Road fire east of Helena and the late summer fire on Mount Helena.
Matthew Hall, fire protection bureau chief with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said that on the Mount Helena incident, six aircraft were working to keep the fire from residential areas when a drone was spotted.
“Because of the life-safety impacts drones pose to low-flying aircraft, the aerial initial attack operations were immediately suspended,” he said. “Not only was this a significant risk to aviators, but it severely limited our capabilities in fire suppression when they were needed most.”
Aerial Fire Magazine reported that Sen. Curdy is a former wildland firefighter and air attack supervisor; his facebook profile notes he spent 38 years as a wildland firefighter, 30 as a smokejumper — with additional creds as Former Pilot, Light Fixed Wing Manager, and Supervisory Pilot at U.S. Forest Service.