This week, Governor Greg Gianforte enacted a bill that strengthens the consequences for drone operators who impede aerial wildfire suppression operations. Offenders can now be charged with a criminal misdemeanor, potentially resulting in a maximum of six months of imprisonment and substantial civil fines. This measure aims to deter interference with wildfire suppression efforts and ensure the safety and effectiveness of these critical operations.

In August of 2022, a wildfire near Helena broke out. To suppress the fire, Extensive aerial operations were undertaken by authorities, involving the deployment of large air tankers for fire retardant drops and helicopters for water drops. Unfortunately, the progress of these operations was hindered due to the presence of an unauthorized drone flying in the vicinity. Prompt action was taken by the Helena Police Department, leading to the identification of the drone operator and subsequent impoundment of the drone.

At the time, Helena Fire Department Chief Jon Campbell stated to MTN news, “Any civilian operation of a drone completely ceases all aircraft firefighting efforts, so it’s a big deal that people don’t do that.”

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, in 2022 there were 15 public drone incursions during wildfire suppression efforts. It was reported that aerial firefighting efforts were shut down 13 times due to drone incursions that year. The drone incursions occurred in Montana, Idaho, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and North Carolina. The average number of drone incursions per year during the 2015 to 2021 time period was 28.

Post Image- 2022 Wildfire Drone Incursions Graphic (Image Credit: National Interagency Fire Center)

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