People caught flying an unauthorized drone over a wildfire may face federal felony charges after the U.S. Senate passed a bill that included legislation originally introduced in July by the Colorado congressional delegation.
The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018, passed Oct. 3 by a 93 to 6 majority, reauthorizes federal aviation programs that improve airport infrastructure, public safety and innovation in the aviation industry. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said he included the provision, which he had previously written as an act, in this bill because they both had to do with aviation, and he called the reauthorization bill “the ideal vehicle.”
“If you interfere with a firefighting operation over a forest and cause this mess, we’re going to make this a federal felony,” Gardner said. “I think, as a result, we’re going to save lives and we’re going to be able to fight fires more safely.”
In both the Senate and the House, Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton, both Republicans, introduced legislation that made unauthorized drone usage during a wildfire a felony. Gardner said he drafted the bill and then asked Tipton to write similar legislation for the House. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, co-sponsored Gardner’s Securing Airspace for Emergency Responders Act of 2018, and Gardner said he was “thrilled” to be part of the bipartisan effort.
Gardner said he regularly speaks to firefighters, first responders and sheriffs after wildfires break out to see how the federal response matched up to their needs. He said he heard many say they had issues with drones, including one sheriff’s deputy that issued a ticket to a drone owner that interfered with their air tanker operation. He said he also spoke to La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith, who could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
“I started to hear the sheriffs telling me that the responses were great, but they had to call off the air operations, the air response … because some idiot was flying a drone over the forest,” Gardner said.
Gardner said another sheriff told him about an “alarming” YouTube video captured by a drone, in which the drone becomes overshadowed by an air tanker. Gardner said drones have caused responders to call off air tankers, delaying their suppression mission.
Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management, said the first few moments of wildfire suppression can be the most crucial to stopping the fire, so grounding air tankers can be detrimental.
“A lot of times, fires start in areas and we’re a little bit slow to being able to access that fire, so the first thing we do is put some sort of air attack or operation in place,” Knowlton said. “We gain the upper hand a lot of times with using the aircraft, but the minute the drones go into the area, then we have to shut off that aircraft response, and that just gives that fire the opportunity to spread much faster.”
Gardner added that grounding tankers because of unauthorized drone usage can cost thousands of dollars and could even risk the lives of the firefighters.
“I just realized what a significant risk we had to human life and significant interference we had with the ability to fight a fire appropriately, and it’s all based on just a bunch of morons deciding that they are more important than the firefighters are,” Gardner said.
Gardner’s press secretary, Casey Contres, said Gardner often listens to issues his constituents bring up and introduces legislation as a solution, like this act in response to his discussions with Colorado sheriffs.
There were four occasions in which drones interrupted firefighting efforts during the 2017 Lightner Creek Fire, which were referred to the Bureau of Land Management. At least one tanker had to dump its load of fire retardant away from the fire because of drone activity.
New technology used during the 416 Fire, however, jammed drones from entering air space near wildfires. Gardner said such technology will be helpful for firefighters, and his Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act of 2017, which advanced out of committee Oct. 2, will encourage more innovation of tools meant to protect firefighters.
Gardner said the next step for wildfire legislation is to continue working on the air tanker issue by making more available to wildfire management teams. He said he also passed legislation that separated budgets for suppression and prevention, and will “absolutely” continue to draft bills to regulate wildfire management.
“This is what Colorado is known for, our mountains, our forests,” Gardner said. “And we have to do everything we can to keep that resource vibrant and healthy.
Emily Martin is a student American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.