Governor Greg Gianforte signed a bill imposing penalties on drone pilots who harass firefighters in the area. Leaders say existing laws in the country make it difficult to regulate such events.
“It’s not clear who has the right to file a lawsuit,” said Matt Hall, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Fire Office.
During the Mount Elena fire last August, aerial firefighting operations were delayed by nearly 10 minutes due to unauthorized drones. This is one of the problems caused by the “drone attack”.
“It has a huge impact on our ability to fight fires, especially in the border areas of the city,” Hall said.
Previously, Montana law imposed civil penalties for operating a drone that interfered with an aerial firefighting operation based on the cost of the intervention. Senate Bill 219, sponsored by Senator Willis Curdy of Missoula, would make criminals punishable with fines of up to $1,500 — while offenders could still be required to pay to stamp out fire.
“It gives law enforcement the authority and discretion to determine disability, and then law enforcement takes that action,” Hall said.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said the change ensures law enforcement can take stronger action to destroy drones if necessary.
“If you fly a drone into an area where air surveillance is being carried out, we will use the necessary measures to destroy the drone,” he said.
Even small drones can have a big impact on firefighting capabilities.
“Firefighters include a variety of planes, helicopters and refueling planes that can fly up to 150 feet above the ground – about the same height as a hobby drone,” Hall said. “So controllers have to keep these planes on the ground to avoid collisions with drones, and this affects the safety and effectiveness of the overall firefighting efforts. “
The National Interagency Fire Center has officially reported 15 public drone attacks across the country in 2022, with just one wildfire in Montana, Mount Helena. However, Dutton told MTN there was an issue with one of the drones at the Matt State fire a few weeks ago.
“Usually there are firefighters on site – everything is organised. “If the fire is not brought under control, the homes are at risk. More importantly, lives are at risk.”
The federal government also has its own rules prohibiting drones from interfering with the war effort – subject to civil penalties including fines of up to $25,000 and possible criminal prosecution.
Hall encourages drone pilots to check out Know BeforeYouFly.org for important information about responsible drone use.
Dutton said the best advice at the start of fire season is to respect firefighters.
“You should go to headquarters and talk to the fire chief and tell him about a safe time to photograph the drone,” he said.
SB 219 goes into effect immediately, so the new law will go into effect during this year’s bushfires.