ST. GEORGE – Legislation allowing authorities to neutralize drones over wildfires was signed into law Sunday by Gov. Gary Herbert. The measure also allows for stiffer fines for drone operators who interfere with airborne suppression efforts.
Due to the potential safety issues drones can cause to aircraft, they are not allowed to be flown within flight-restricted areas around a wildfire. As a potential collision with a drone can cause a plane or helicopter to crash, fire officials will suspend flight operations once a drone is sighted in the area.
This can lead to aircraft not being able to drop water or retardant on fires at critical times which could help keep a fire from spreading.
These factors have done little to endear firefighters to the sighting of a drone at a wildfire.
Now, thanks to the new legislation passed during a special session of the Legislature and signed by the governor, fire officials can drop the drone from the sky if necessary.
This can be done by shooting the drone, or bringing it down through electronic means.
“Public safety has always been my top priority and this new law will allow us to more effectively fight wildfires,” Herbert said in a statement Monday. “We are not going to tolerate reckless drone interference during wildfire season. With this law, Utah has taken the necessary precautions to protect our emergency management personnel and prevent additional interference that compromises public safety.”
Under the new law, the maximum fine for operating a drone near an emergency aircraft and causing it to crash has increased to $15,000 with possible imprisonment.
On five separate occasions this summer, a drone interfered with fire suppression operations at the Saddle Fire near Pine Valley. Aircraft were grounded each time. This slowed firefighting efforts and cost millions in taxpayer dollars.
State Sen. Evan Vickers, a sponsor of the bill the governor signed, said the drone incursions have cost Utah as much as $8 million.
As of Monday evening, the Saddle Fire was measured at 2,299 acres and 84 percent contained.
Triggered by lightning June 13, the fire is located around 2 miles south of the Pine Valley community within the Dixie National Forest.
An uncontained fire line remains in Lloyd Canyon. The threat to 54 structures is continually being assessed and thus far no structures have been destroyed. No evacuations are currently in effect.
Closures remain in effect for the Forsyth Trail, Goat Springs Trail, and roads 31016, 2113, 2114, 3396, 565.
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