- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - When a fire broke out last year near a Utah mountain lake, firefighters had to ground their airplanes and helicopters because a drone was buzzing nearby.

Fire crews can’t risk the unmanned aerial devices colliding with their planes and helicopters, so they pull out until the drones are gone, said Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

These increasingly frequent delays waste thousands of taxpayer dollars, risk wildfires spreading and could cause deadly crashes, he said.

A new proposal in the Utah Legislature aims to address the growing problem by creating a possible penalty of jail time for people who fly drones within 3 miles of a wildfire.

A House committee was scheduled to discuss the proposal Tuesday afternoon but the hearing was postponed.

Republican Rep. Kraig Powell of Heber City, the proposal’s sponsor, said he asked to postpone the meeting so he could get more input from interested parties. He said he may add exemptions for certain entities, such as public utility companies that need to use drones to see if the fire will impact gas lines.

Curry said he hopes lawmakers back the bill.

“I really hope it doesn’t take a major mishap and somebody to lose their life for the public to take it seriously,” Curry said.

As drones become increasingly popular, more people fly the devices near wildfires to take photographs or simply view them up close, Curry said.

In Utah, fire officials spotted one drone flying over a wildfire in 2014 and two last year, Curry said. He said he didn’t know of any crashing into a fire department aircraft.

Nationally, drones may have interfered with aircraft fighting more than a dozen wildfires last year, according to the U.S. Forest Service. In 2014, they interfered during just a handful of fires.

The California Legislature considered a similar proposal last year, but it died.

Critics say punishing drone hobbyists with jail time is too extreme.

There should be consequences if you put a pilot or anyone else in danger, but time behind bars may not be the right one, said Troy May, whose Ogden-based company, Digital Defense Surveillance, sells drones and offers training on their use.

May said he would like to see fire departments work with drone pilots to fight fires because the unmanned aircraft can be extremely valuable in spotting which direction flames are moving.

The state penalty would add another deterrent. During wildfires, the Federal Aviation Administration already can impose temporary restrictions on drone hobbyists, meaning they aren’t allowed to fly their aircraft within a certain area.

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