USA 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.
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.
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.