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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

New law makes flying drones over a wildfire a crime

A drone with a camera mounted on it.

Under a new state law anyone using an unauthorized drone that interrupts wildfire fighting efforts could now face misdemeanor criminal charges, stiff fines and even jail time.

Under a bill signed into law this weekend by Gov. Greg Gianforte, civilians using drones that get in the way of firefighting could face fines of up to $1,500 and the possibility of up to six months in jail.

Until now the infraction meant the possibility of civil fines for loss of flight time. Missoula Democratic State Sen. Willis Curdy was the bill’s primary sponsor in the Legislature.

“We’re trying to do something to keep our firefighters safe, but also protect private property,” Curdy said.

A provision that would have allowed law enforcement officers to shoot down drones hampering firefighting operations was stripped from an earlier version of the bill.

Fire officials have said unauthorized drone flights present significant safety risks to air tanker and helicopter pilots. Fire managers frequently suspend aerial firefighting efforts due to drones in the area. Utah and California also prosecute unauthorized drone operators.

It’s a federal crime punishable by up to a year in prison to interfere with firefighting efforts on public lands. The Federal Aviation Administration also has the authority to impose civil fines of up to $20,000 for interfering with wildland firefighting efforts.

Fireline probes the causes and consequences of the increasingly devastating wildfires burning in the U.S. It taps into the experience of firefighters, tribal land managers, climate scientists and others to understand how we got here and where we're going.

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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