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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Seeley Lake Drone Incursion Leads To Federal Investigation

A drone with a camera mounted on it.
An unmaned aerial vehicle, also known as a drone. File photo.

The drone pilot allegedly responsible for temporarily shutting down aerial firefighting operations on the Rice Ridge Firenear Seeley Lake Wednesday is now the subject of a federal investigation.

The U.S. Forest Service is working in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Department of Justice to determine if charges are warranted.

Rice Ridge fire spokesman Mark De Gregorio says law enforcement takes these cases very seriously.

“We’re done messing around with it, quite honestly.”

It’s illegal to fly drones in closed air spaces around fires. Authorities say people could get killed if one of the machines crashed into a helicopter rotor, or a low-flying airplane’s engine.

De Gregorio says no one now has an excuse to behave so recklessly.

“There’s been a campaign now for over two years to inform people that it’s illegal to fly a drone in a fire traffic area," He says. "Now it’s time to start enforcing it, and that’s what we’re doing."

He says Wednesday’s drone incursion stalled aerial firefighting operations over the Rice Ridge Fire for 15 to 20 minutes.

“For the firefighters it’s frustrating cause we’re trying to protect people’s lives and property. and when you have somebody who does something like that for their own purposes, it’s a selfish thing to do and it puts people at risk,” De Gregorio says.

A Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer and a Missoula County Sheriff’s Deputy responded to yesterday’s drone incident in Seeley Lake. No arrests were made, but a joint federal investigation is now underway. Violators could face stiff fines and penalties.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center there have been at least 18 public drone incursions nationally, most of which resulted in the temporary shutdown of aerial firefighting efforts.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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