British Columbia

Drone operators cautioned to stay away from B.C. wildfires

As crews battle dozens of wildfires across B.C., drone enthusiasts are being reminded to keep their equipment far away from the flames.

Flying UAV too close to an active fire can result in large fines and more than a year in jail

It's illegal in Canada to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle near a wildfire.

As firefighters battle hundreds of wildfires across B.C., drone enthusiasts are being reminded to keep their equipment far away from the flames.

Flying an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near an active wildfire can result in thousands of dollars in fines and even possible jail time, but that hasn't always stopped some operators from taking the risk.

That's why drone operator and instructor Sterling Cripps had stern words for anyone who defies provincial and federal regulations and flies a drone near a wildfire.

"You are putting people at risk when you are flying a drone in a smoky fire area," Cripps said.

'You are putting people at risk'

Two years ago, eight helicopters and five skimmers fighting a wildfire near Oliver had to be grounded for hours when a stray drone flew too close.

There were also reports last year of drones being spotted near wildfires in B.C. and Alberta.

So far this year, there have been no reports of UAV flying in the vicinity of wildfires in British Columbia, but Cripps is concerned about getting the message out to people who may not be aware of the rules and potential consequences.

"It would be a very selfish act on anyone's part who wants to go in and fly a drone in these areas," Cripps said.

He pointed out that firefighting aircraft are flying in low visibility conditions, at low altitudes and low speeds, often with heavy loads of water or retardant.

"There's no way they would ever see a drone. If one was ever ingested into an engine or [smashed] into a windscreen or something like that, the results would be catastrophic," Cripps said.

Jail time, heavy fines for violators

The legal repercussions can also be severe.

B.C.'s Wildfire Act was amended last year to include sanctions of up to a year in jail and fines of as much as $100,000 for interfering with wildfire control efforts.

Under Transport Canada regulations, the penalties can include up to 18 months in jail and fines as high as $25,000 for unauthorized aircraft found flying within a radius of about nine kilometres of a fire or below an altitude of about a 900 metres.

Anyone who is unsure about whether it's safe to put a drone in the air can check Nav Canada's notices to airmen for the legal boundaries around wildfires. Those notices are available online or by calling 1-866-541-4102.