People caught flying a drone over a wildfire could face federal felony charges if a bill that Colorado’s congressional delegation introduced Wednesday becomes law.
“I’ve heard firsthand from the men and women fighting fires in Colorado about the problems and risks they encounter with unauthorized drones flying over wildfires,” U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in a news release. “It puts the lives of firefighting personnel at risk and enhances the threat to public safety by causing the grounding of aerial firefighting assets because the airspace over a fire isn’t secure.”
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, introduced the bill with Gardner.
The Securing Airspace For Emergency Responders Act, introduced in both the House and Senate, would make it a federal felony to fly an unauthorized Unmanned Aircraft System, or UAS, over a wildfire.
Unauthorized drone flights over wildfires have been a problem in the San Juan National Forest. A report of an unauthorized drone came in on the first day of the 416 Fire.
Firefighting operations were disrupted at least four times in four days by drones during the Lightner Creek Fire in June 2017, according to the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office. During the fire, planes were ready to drop retardant on the section of the fire moving toward Durango when they were grounded. Two planes had to jettison about 1,600 gallons of retardant worth between $8,000 and $10,000.
Chris Tipton, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service, told The Durango Herald last June that pilots cannot see drones and any collision could harm an aircraft or a pilot.
It is against federal law to resist or interfere with firefighters’ efforts to extinguish fires. The Federal Aviation Administration also has rules that pertain to unmanned aircraft systems on national forest system lands, including flying in no-fly zones.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, in 2016, firefighters had to suspend operations at least 13 times because of unauthorized drone flights.
Drones disrupted fire-suppression efforts at several major wildfires in 2017, including in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, where a 54-year-old Prescott Valley man was arrested on suspicion of 14 counts of felony endangerment and one count of unlawful operation of an unmanned aircraft.
On June 14, firefighter crews working on the Bocco Fire near Wolcott had to suspend firefighting operations for four hours after a civilian drone flew in their airspace.
In a news release Bennet said, “Coloradans understand the risks that recreational drone activity creates for our communities, and Senator Gardner, Congressman Tipton and I will work to prohibit this unauthorized drone use to help our first responders do their jobs.”
Gardner is the sponsor of the bill in the Senate and Sen. Bennet is the lead co-sponsor.
Tipton, the sponsor in the House, said, “Not only does this prevent the fire from being suppressed as quickly, but the firefighters on the ground are also left without the air support they may need to create an exit route in the event of an emergency.”
Casey Contres, press secretary for Gardner, said the bipartisan bill is not unusual for the Colorado delegation.
“Sen. Gardner and Sen. Bennet have the best bipartisan relationship of any two senators in Congress,” he said.
This week, Contres said, the senators also cooperated to introduce an amendment to the Farm Bill to support work in the Department of Agriculture to research and to combat two diseases that threaten the hops crops important to Colorado’s microbrewers.