Drone pilots warned to keep away from B.C. wildfire zones

Calm weather making it easier to fight wildfires in Kamloops, BC
WATCH: Calm weather making it easier to fight wildfires in Kamloops, BC

As the BC Wildfire Service fights a desperate battle to protect homes in communities across the province, it has a message for amateur pilots and videographers: Keep your drones on the ground.

Federal regulations ban the operation of drones and any other aircraft within nine kilometres of a wildfire to a height of 3,000 metres.

READ MORE: B.C. wildfire status: 230 fires burning across the province

That hasn’t stopped curious flyers from trying to get close in search of the perfect shot, said fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek.

“We certainly had an issue in 2015, a wildfire near Oliver, the Testalinden fire, our aircraft were grounded for hours as a result of a drone that was continually in the area.”

To protect air crews in that incident, eight helicopters and an air tanker were pulled from service, disrupting work to contain the out-of-control fire.

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Crews were also briefly grounded while fighting a wildfire near Kelowna earlier that same year.

There were also two reports of drones near wildfires last year, though neither disrupted flight operations.

Skrepnek said there haven’t been any incidents reported this fire season.

READ MORE: B.C. wildfires map 2017: Current location of wildfires around the province

But with the high number of fires across B.C. and their proximity to communities, he said he’s anticipating it could become a problem.

“Drones are aircraft, they need to be treated as such,” he said. “And certainly we have a lot of aircraft in the air right now, both helicopters and air tankers.”

“Just given the intense situation we’ve got right now, we don’t want to see a repeat.”

Under Transport Canada regulations, anyone caught flying a drone within a fire zone could face a $25,000 fine or up to 18 months in jail.

And in spring of last year, B.C.’s Wildfire Act was updated to include a penalty of up to $100,000 and a year in jail for anyone — including drone pilots — caught interfering with firefighting efforts.

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