HELENA — Sunday’s fire on Mount Helena tore across part of the mountain. Thanks to the efforts of numerous agencies the fire was contained. However, air attack was halted for a time due to civilian drone use.
“So, we're just really strongly trying to encourage the public to not fly their drones anywhere near any kind of fire space that's going on. And as a matter of fact, there was a lot of people on the trail system yesterday, as well. So, you know, whether they're flying a drone or walking around they're still in the fire area and we just asking people to try and stay away on the next one. I understand everyone wants to take a peek and look at it, but keep out of the fire area if at all possible,” says Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) Forestry Division Program Manager, John Huston.
A drone flown by a civilian put the fire crews back by about 12 minutes, but Huston says it felt like much longer. Any minute lost fighting a wildfire has the potential to make a big difference. A crew member first spotted the drone and alerted the aviation resources.
“The crew member actually kind of chased the drone down the hill and was able to find some kids that helped him out, that got him to the person that was actually operating the drone. We quickly called the PD and they responded within a few minutes, and we were able to catch up with the gentleman,” says Huston.
Attempting to continue fire repression efforts with an unidentified drone in the air poses a threat to all other pilots’ lives.
“So, any aircraft like a drone, no communication with anyone, we don't know what it's doing, where it's going, we just can't have it. We have any kind of air-to-air impact, you know, that's potential bad things for those pilots, those planes, those helicopters,” says Huston.
Helena Police Department ended up confiscating the drone as evidence. Due to Montana Code 76-13-214 a civil penalty could be brought against the drone pilot for this obstruction.
“As a firefighting agency, we do want to send a message that this is not a good thing. So, we do want to levy a fine of some sort, yes,” says Huston.
The fire caused about 18 acres worth of damage and the entire Mount Helena City Park is still closed to the public. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
“There's always that chance, so we ask people just to be vigilant. We don't expect it to come back to life. It's looking really good, expecting things to wind down. But always, you know, back of your head, keep an eye up there,” says Huston.