Flying drones over wildfires could soon be federal felony
The bill would fine people convicted of flying unauthorized drones and possibly send them to jail for a year
By Anna Staver
The Denver Post
WASHINGTON — People caught flying a drone over a wildfire could face federal felony charges if three of Colorado’s federal lawmakers convince Congress to pass their bill.
Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado), Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) and Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Cortez) introduced the Securing Airspace For Emergency Responders Act Wednesday.
The bill would fine people convicted of flying unauthorized drones and possibly send them to jail for a year.
“When an unauthorized drone flies over a wildfire, it poses a huge threat to aircrafts working to suppress the fire and forces them to ground,” Tipton said in a statement.
Flying over a wildfire isn’t easy. Pilots navigate smoky, windy and turbulent conditions with little visibility, said Steve Hall, a spokesman for Colorado’s office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
A drone, which might be small and hard to see, could do a lot of damage if it hit a helicopter.
Fire crews ground planes when someone spots an unauthorized drone, Hall said.
That’s what happened earlier this month at the Bocco Fire near Wolcott in Eagle County. Helicopters and tanker crews stopped dropping buckets of water on the emerging fire for an hour after someone spotted a drone.
“During that time you don’t have all of those valuable tools to hopefully catch a fire before it gets too big,” Hall said.
Federal lawmakers aren’t the only ones thinking about ways to deter people from trying to snap that perfect shot of a wildfire.
Colorado’s legislature passed a law during the 2018 session making it a misdemeanor to fly a drone in a way that impedes a police officer, firefighter, emergency medical service provider or rescue team.
When the state law goes into effect in August drone operators who are convicted could face a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail.
The Federal Aviation Administration also has the authority to fine drone operators who fly over restricted air space.
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