Skip to content

Drones Could Soon Be Banned From Flying Near Wildfires

Drone pilots keep flying their aircraft near wildfires. You can understand why: Fires are visually fascinating, and drones are the cool new way to shoot photos and videos of things we like looking at. But it's becoming a problem: The US Forest Service says drones have interfered with firefighting aircraft 13 times so far this year alone, and lawmakers are determined to stop it.

New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D) last week introduced the Wildfire and Emergency Airspace Protection Act, a bill that would make it illegal to fly drones that "interfere with fighting fires affecting federal property" or "responding to disasters affecting interstate or foreign commerce."

"We've seen a rapid rise in the use of drones, and our laws need to keep pace," says Senator Shaheen. "It's unacceptable that the efforts of firefighters and first responders are being obstructed, and in some cases, their lives endangered, by someone flying a drone near a disaster area."

An bill proposed in California this summer would have allowed local law enforcement to charge and arrest anyone flying a drone near a wildfire. The bill passed both houses of the state legislature, but was opposed by companies like Amazon, Google and GoPro, because it banned drones from flying less than 350 feet above property without the property owner's permission. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it.

Unlike the California bill, the Senate bill would only apply to natural disasters like wildfires, hurricanes, and floods. It specifically calls out recreational drones, meaning public safety workers using drones for reconnaissance or other purposes (like news coverage) wouldn't be affected. Agricultural use is specifically exempted.

"Widespread recreational drone use is relatively new, and we don't want to discourage anyone from using them responsibly," says Shaheen. "The language in this bill targets recreational drone use that specifically interferes with firefighting or disaster relief efforts."

It wouldn't require a temporary flight restriction, or TFR, to be issued by the FAA—it only requires that a fire affect federal property or interstate or foreign commerce. That's a wide mandate: A huge percentage of fires occur in national forests or parks, and US highways, which carry interstate commerce, are everywhere. It would be easy to make the argument that it applies in nearly any situation.

The spirit of the law is to serve as a deterrent, to give local law enforcement the ability to tell meddlesome drone pilots to buzz off. At the moment, cops don't really have any authority to ground drones. That falls to the FAA, which can't do much more than send a stern letter months after the fact.

"This legislation is intended to serve as an effective deterrent to irresponsible drone use near disaster relief efforts by empowering law enforcement to stop this dangerous behavior," Shaheen says. "This is a relatively new problem, but my legislation is intended to be a timely response before this gets further out of hand."

It's unlikely that the bill will pass on its own, very few smaller bills do. Instead, if there's support for it, it could get attached to a larger omnibus-style bill as a single amendment. A similar, but slightly different, bill has also been introduced in the House.