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Ground them

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Saturday, June 30, 2018 10:44 AM
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald - A single engine air tanker drops its load of fire retardant high above the Lightner Creek Fire after a drone was reported flying in the area, causing all air support to stop.

It’s hard to imagine that a piece of federal legislation introduced this week by Colorado’s congressional delegation would have any opposition.

In fact, the Securing Airspace for Emergency Responders Act should already be law.

The bill, introduced in the U.S. Senate this week by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and co-sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., would make it a federal felony to fly an unauthorized drone – or unmanned aircraft system – over a wildfire.

Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, is the House sponsor.

And why do we need this?

Apparently because drone ownership does not require common sense, civic courtesy or even the vaguest notion of how you might endanger others.

Yes, we’re quite sure that most drone owners are responsible. But it only takes a few irresponsible ones to quickly demonstrate that even more rules must be made to enforce what should be obvious: don’t interfere with firefighters or other first responders.

Such interference has happened routinely at large wildfires in recent years, including at the 416 Fire. On day one, an unauthorized drone was reported.

During the 2017 Lightner Creek Fire, drones disrupted firefighting operations four times in four days, endangering firefighting aircraft and wasting thousands of dollars of fire retardant.

Similar instances have happened in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico as well. In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service was forced to suspend aerial firefighting operations 13 times because of drones.

Despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “If you fly, we can’t” campaign – delivered on social media, posters, the media and on government literature – some people can’t seem to get the message.

Aerial firefighting operations are halted when a drone operator decides to send his or her little gadget up to look at or take photos of a fire. Lives and property are endangered, and firefighters are frustrated.

Yes indeed, this warrants a federal felony charge.

The Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration have rules about uses of unmanned and model aircraft – and there are plenty of beneficial uses. But those rules and regulations have not been enough to ground the drones during emergencies.

With nearly every technological innovation comes a moment of, “oops, we should have thought of those consequences.” Or, “we thought of that, but figured the community would work things out.”

That’s not always so easy or quick – consider the international treaties developed after the dawn of the space age, and the piles of law at every level that have been considered and/or enacted with the creation of the internet and social media.

But airspace has long been regulated around the globe. A new kind of aircraft doesn’t escape the rules, and that should hold true whether the craft are manned or unmanned.

We implore drone owners to play by the rules and do no harm – during wildfires or at any other time.

And we applaud the efforts of our entire congressional delegation to crack down on the scofflaws.

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