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Tough on drones, boats

Irresponsible drone operators and boaters are the latest groups to come under fire from the provincial government.

Both groups have been under attack for hampering attempts to fight wildfires throughout the province.

On two occasions this summer, aircraft fighting fires in West Kelowna and Oliver were grounded when unauthorized drones flew too close.

On Aug. 16, eight aircraft were grounded at the Testalinden Creek wildfire near Oliver. Those aircraft were grounded for four hours while the fire continued to spread.

During a media conference Friday, Mike Morris, parliamentary secretary to Forests Minister Steve Thompson, said he is looking into tougher enforcement and penalties for those who disobey the rules.

"They (firefighters) should not have to deal with the unnecessary dangers of people irresponsibly using drones near wildfires," said Morris.

"Our intention here today is to ensure all drone operators are aware of the rules that govern them and the severe consequences of not following those rules."

Transport Canada regulates the use of drones, and Morris said those regulations prohibit their use near any wildfire.

"The restricted area is within a radius of five nautical miles around a fire and to an altitude of 3,000 feet above ground level.

"The current maximum fine for an infraction is $25,000 and violators could spend up to 18 months in jail."

Morris said he hopes to see the federal regulations beefed up, but he also wants provincial regulations that would give local enforcement officers the chance to deal with offenders immediately.

He's also looking into similar sanctions for boaters who hamper firefighting efforts by getting too close to areas where helicopters and water bombers are refilling.

"In the interest of safety, I am asking every British Columbian to use their common sense and keep their boat well away from areas where air tankers or helicopters are working," said Morris.

"We will also be exploring the option of imposing heavy penalties to any boater who intentionally or unintentionally interferes with the wildfire process."

These are on top of potential fines for smokers who start fires by carelessly tossing cigarette butts out of moving vehicles.

Morris said the government has put together a four-point action plan to address the issues. These include:

  1. Review existing enforcement provisions under Transport Canada regulations, the Wildfire Act and other provincial legislation.
  2. Explore potential legislative and regulatory changes to strengthen existing provisions and penalties of provincial legislation in the spring of 2016.
  3. A public awareness campaign directed at stores where drones are sold to inform buyers about their legal obligations.
  4. Transport Canada is currently reviewing its legislative requirements relative to drones and is actively seeking feedback on how to improve the regulatory framework.

"We have made a submission to the federal government that advocates for stronger regulation and addresses a number of key themes, including the safe operation of drones, personal privacy, registration of drones, certification of all drone operators and public awareness."

Morris said he hopes to have his report complete within the next  couple of weeks.

Any new legislation could be in place for the start of next year's fire season.

Morris added the pilots involved in the two drone incidents have not yet been identified. Those investigations are continuing.

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