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Montana Ups Penalties for Drone Interference During Wildfire Operations

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill this week stiffening penalties for drone operators that interfere with aerial wildfire suppression efforts. Violators could face a criminal misdemeanor, up to 6 months in jail and hefty civil fines.

A firefighting aircraft drops fire retardant over the forest during wildfire suppression efforts in Montana.
Thinking of flying your personal drone over a raging wildfire to get a glimpse of the devastating impacts these massive infernos can have? If so, think again — especially if you live in Montana.

The state, like several others, now has a law on the books that criminalizes the operation of a personal drone that interferes with aerial wildfire suppression efforts.

On May 22, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed SB 219 into law, which states that “a person may not obstruct, impede, prevent or otherwise interfere with lawful aerial wildfire suppression response activities by any means, including by the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle system.”

During 2022, there was a total of 15 public drone incursions that forced aerial firefighting to shut down 13 times as a result, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Idaho, California and Pennsylvania have grappled with this issue.

When aerial firefighting operations were delayed for critical minutes because of an unauthorized drone during a wildfire event in Montana last year, state officials rallied around the need for harsher penalties to prevent would-be violators.

The act, sponsored by Sen. Willis Curdy of Missoula, revises the current wildfire suppression law by increasing the penalties for criminals who do not adhere to the restrictions.

Violators will now face a criminal misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,500 and up to six months in jail. In addition, they can be charged with extenuating firefighting costs to cover issues caused by unauthorized drone disruption.

The federal government also has detailed rules against flying drones that interfere with wildfire suppression efforts, which include civil fines of up to $25,000 and criminal prosecution. An online Federal Aviation Administration Drone and Wildfires Digital Toolkit outlines the dangers of personal drone use during wildfire emergencies.

According to the document, “Firefighting aircraft often fly at the same altitude as drones flown by members of the public and others, which creates the potential for a mid-air collision. Unauthorized drone operators could lead fire managers to suspend aerial wildfire suppression operations — such as air tankers dropping fire retardant and helicopters dropping water — until the aircraft has left the airspace and they are confident it won’t return.”