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New Montana law targets drone pilots disrupting firefighting efforts

Montana has adopted a new law adding state penalties for drone pilots whose flights interfere with firefighting efforts on top of federal fines – a legal combination that could feasibly cost convicted violators $40,000.

State governor Greg Gianforte signed bill SB 219 that legislators had earlier approved establishing a $1,500 fine for the misdemeanor of drone pilots flaunting interdictions of flying around blazes, and obstructing firefighters in their work while doing so. 

The new law – which can also hold violators liable for all costs involved in hampering responders in their work – will be applied in addition to federal statutes. Those can inflict up to $25,000 in fines and possible criminal prosecution of drone pilots whose flights impede firefighting, or otherwise interfere with responses to blazes.

ReadCanada reminds drone pilots of the rules around wildfires

Passage of the law was largely in response to firefighting activity that was interrupted by a drone flight last year as units battled a wind-driven inferno on Mount Helena. 

That was reportedly the second such obstruction Montana fire units experienced last summer, and among the 19 or 20 similar incidents averaged across the US annually since 2019.

The new law was drawn up to compensate for what were considered overly specific prohibitions of drone pilots inhibiting aerial firefighting activity. 

The new rules will now punish anyone whose UAV inhibits fire suppression activity in any manner – including communication tech interference. It also gives fire officials on site more authority to determine when those craft have hampered their work – a legal appreciation that’s expected to strengthen eventual prosecution and conviction of violators.

“This provides law enforcement the jurisdiction and discretion to make a professional determination of obstruction, and then leaves it to the prosecuting authority to follow through,” said Matt Hall, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Fire Protection’s bureau chief. “If you fly your drone into an area where we have aerial suppression efforts going, we’ll use whatever means necessary to take that drone out.”

Photo: Marcus Kauffman/Unsplash

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Avatar for Bruce Crumley Bruce Crumley

Bruce Crumley is journalist and writer who has worked for Fortune, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, The Guardian, AFP, and was Paris correspondent and bureau chief for Time magazine specializing in political and terrorism reporting. He splits his time between Paris and Biarritz, and is the author of novel Maika‘i Stink Eye.