Wildfires and drones don’t mix; lawmakers to discuss stricter penalties

Fire crews perform an aerial attack over a lightning-caused fire burning on Saddle Mountain in the Pine Valley Wilderness of the Dixie National Forest, Washington County, Utah, June 23, 2016 | Photo courtesy of InciWeb, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY – Gov. Gary R. Herbert has issued a call for a special session of the Utah Legislature. The session will be held on July 13 to consider measures related to unmanned aircraft near wildland fires, among other issues.

“This summer, wildfires in the state have become significantly worse due to drones interrupting air operations,” Herbert said. “It is dangerous and completely unacceptable, and this legislation takes steps to ensure that our emergency management personnel are safe and empowered to do their jobs effectively.”

Image courtesy of UtahFireInfo.gov, St. George News
Image courtesy of UtahFireInfo.gov, St. George News

The announcement comes in the wake of two new drone incursions over the Saddle Fire near Pine Valley that occurred Friday and Sunday. Both instances resulted in a temporary halt to airborne firefighting operations.

They are the fourth and fifth drone incursions at the Saddle Fire to be reported by fire officials.

The third drone incursion, which occurred June 20, was reported as “a near miss” with a helicopter.

Chris Henrie, who was the incident commander over the Saddle Fire at the time, said the drone sighting came at a crucial moment when aircraft were trying to drop retardant on fire that day.

Instead of being allowed to do the job, the aircraft had to turn back.

“It jeopardizes the safety for our firefighters and the public,” Henrie said. “Please do not fly drones in our area again.”

Unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a drone | Photo courtesy of Mike Saemisch
Unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a drone | Photo courtesy of Mike Saemisch

A 5-mile temporary flight restriction zone currently exists around the Saddle Fire.

Under state law, operating a drone over a wildfire zone is a class-B misdemeanor offense. Forcing any aircraft involved in fire suppression operations to change course is a class-A misdemeanor.

A third-degree felony results if the drone comes into contact with the aircraft. This is followed by a second-degree felony should a crash result from the aircraft-drone contact.

Due to continuing drone incursions over wildfire scenes, the governor is seeking enhanced penalties for drone operators who interfere with firefighting operations, which will be addressed in the July 13 session.

The Saddle Fire is currently at 2,295 acres in size and 45 percent contained as of Monday morning. Currently 211 personnel from multiple firefighting agencies are assigned to the fire.

Voluntary evacuations are currently in place in Pine Valley south on Lloyd Canyon Drive at the Mahogany Lane intersection and south on Oakridge Drive and Mahogany Lane. Closures in the Pine Valley Recreation area, including campgrounds, are being lifted but trails in the immediate fire area will remain closed to the public.

Other matters to be addressed in the special session:

  • Legislation regarding a grandparent’s rights to visits grandchildren adopted by a family member of the child.
  • Economic development legislation that would provide sales and use tax exemptions for a qualifying data center.
  • A technical correction to the controlled substance database for probationers and parolees.
  • Amendments to the security of investments in continuing care facilities.
  • The addition of an enacting clause to 2016 House Bill 310, Tax Credit Review Amendments.
  • Changes to the Judicial Nominating Commission which would allow additional nominees to be considered when simultaneous appointments are made.
  • Reporting changes to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
  • An appropriation of funds for the purpose of constructing an arena at the Utah State Fairpark.

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

 

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