Caven Wade

(UM Legislative News Service) A bill moving through the Montana Legislature with bi-partisan support would allow charges to be filed against people who interfere with fire suppression methods by operating drones in the area of an active fire.

Sen. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, is sponsoring Senate Bill 219  which would create the ability for counties to file charges against people who delay fire reducing efforts when operating an unmanned aerial vehicle in the area.

The bill passed the Senate 37-10 on Feb. 10, and it is now in the hands of the House Natural Resources Committee.

SB 219 implements penalties of up to a $500 fine, and no more than six months in jail if an individual is found guilty of impeding wildfire suppression by using a drone.

Curdy said last summer in Helena, there were two incidents in which drones were flying in a path around a wildfire, which delayed fire crews from being able to safely deal with the situation until the drone was removed from the airway. He said the wildfire suppression companies that contract aerial fire suppression tools went to the county attorney's office and asked to press charges against the drone operators, but the county couldn’t because there was no official law on the issue in Montana.

“Senate Bill 219 provides an avenue solving that problem by allowing local and state prosecutors to bring criminal charges against individuals who ‘obstruct,’ and this is the key word for this bill,” Curdy said. “This bill deals with obstruction of fire-related activities, preventing Montana wildland firefighters from suppressing their fires.”

The bill also adds definitions to Montana law on what is considered an unmanned aerial vehicle, and the circumstances that would be considered obstructing.

Matthew Hall, the fire protection bureau chief for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, was one of two supporters of the bill and said wildfires used to be predictable, but the risks are growing each year.

“Obstructions of wildfire suppression activities can hinder our initial attack efforts, which results in wildfires growing in size making them more difficult to control, posing a greater threat to communities and ultimately costing more to suppress,” Hall said.

Hall said one individual's actions can completely derail wildfire suppression actions, and even force an entire squad to retreat. He said these individuals currently can’t face any consequences even if it leads to risking lives or property. 

There were no opponents at the hearing.