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Bill would make it a crime to fly drones over wildfires

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People who fly the drones over wildland fires could soon face criminal penalties under a bill gaining traction at the Legislature.

Unauthorized drone flights over wildland fires frequently leave fire managers no choice but to suspend aerial firefighting operations.

“Not only was this a significant risk to aviators, but severely limited our fire suppression capabilities when they were needed most,” Matthew Hall said.

Hall is the Fire Protection Bureau Chief for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Hall told the House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday that a drone grounded critical aerial firefighting aircraft just last summer in Helena.

State Senator Willis Curdy, a Democrat from Missoula, says that civilians using drones to monitor or photograph wildland firefighting operations currently face the possibility of getting slapped with civil penalties. Senate Bill 219 intends to raise the stakes.

“Before, we had a civil offense by fining somebody for the loss of flight time, now the bill calls for criminal charges for a person who obstructs firefighters from conducting their activities,” Curdy said.

Senate Bill 219 would make the infraction a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,500 and six months in jail.

An amendment tacked on would permit law enforcement to “use reasonable force” to disable a drone.

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton supports the bill and says that he particularly appreciates that amendment if it leads to saving lives and property.

“I will use whatever measures it takes to get that thing out of the air. It could be a firearm, depending on how far it is. That includes shotgun, birdshot, slug,” Dutton said.

The bill passed the Senate last month with a 37-10 vote. The House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday took no action on the bill.

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