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Illegal drone flights near wildfires would be studied under John Curtis’s bill

House passes bill. Utah has seen private drone flights endanger fire crews.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) An airplane drops fire retardant to fight a wildfire near Kaysville on Sept. 16, 2019. The U.S. House passed a bill by Rep. John Curtis seeking to quantify damage when such aircraft are grounded because of interferrence from private drones.

The U.S. House passed a bill by Utah Rep. John Curtis that seeks to quantify the damage done when people fly drones near wildfires, forcing aircraft that are actually fighting the flames to remain grounded.

The House voted 382-6 on Thursday to pass his Aerial Incursion Repercussion (AIR) Safety Act, and sent it to the Senate.

Curtis told the House that too often when some people ignore no-fly orders with personal drones, “fire managers must ground their own drones and helicopters until the incursion is clear. This wastes valuable time and money, putting structures and lives at risk.”

His bill orders federal agencies to study the effects of such incursions during the past five years, including the length of delays caused and the costs created. It also calls for evaluation of possible methods to stop those drones.

Greg Josten, president of the National Association of State Foresters, issued a statement of support.

“State forestry agencies know it all too well: If you fly, we can’t,” he said. “Now, it’s time to quantify all the deleterious effects of drone incursions on wildfire fighting airspace. With hard numbers to support needed change, we’ll be better positioned to prevent costly delays and shutdowns and protect both property and lives.”

As an example of problems, private drones in Utah caused the grounding of firefighting aircraft on three consecutive days in 2016 despite repeated warnings. One drone came within feet of a helicopter over the then-400-acre Saddle Fire near Pine Valley in southern Utah, not only halting its mission, but endangering the crew.

“This is an attack on the safety and wellbeing of our flight crews and our aircraft,” Chris Henrie, fire incident commander, said at the time. “This stopped a significant effort to protect the residents of Pine Valley and could have killed our flight crew.”

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