BIG SKY, Mont. – Cooler temperatures and calm winds have aided firefighting efforts in the Custer Gallatin National Forest but civilian drones have caused problems and additional fire growth over the week.
The Shedhorn Fire has burned 74 acres in steep mountain terrain between Big Sky and West Yellowstone in the Upper Tumbledown Creek area and has relied on helicopter, air attack planes and cargo drops to firefighters on the ground to slow the blaze.
Those aircrafts have helped suppress the Shedhorn Fire since Sept. 27 but were all grounded twice this week due to safety issues with a drone in the fire area.
“Drones cause significant safety concerns and cease all air operations,” said Corey Lewellen, Agency Administrator for the Shedhorn Fire. “We can’t stress enough, that all flying of drones over the fire must stop immediately.”
Aerial firefighting company Bridger Aerospace based out of Belgrade has spent over 2,500 hours fighting more than 400 fires across the western United States.
Assistant Chief Pilot Ryan Cleveland of the Bridger Aerospace Air Attack Division said he has spent most of his time in Montana and northern Idaho fighting more than 30 fires in his Kodiak-100 this year but said civilian drones force him and his team to ground their planes.
“It really puts those men and women on the ground the firefighters and the public in danger because a fire that could’ve been contained or possibly put out within an hour or a day just grows exponentially because those air assets are there to put the retardant down or directly put the water on the fire,” Cleveland said.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) it is a federal crime, punishable by up to 12 months in prison, to interfere with firefighting efforts on public lands.
Additionally, Congress has authorized the FAA to impose a civil penalty of up to $20,000 against any drone pilot who interferes with wildfire suppression, law enforcement or emergency response operations.
Anyone with information about the drone is asked to call Marna Daley with the Custer Gallatin National Forest at 406-570-5526.