Sunday, October 9, 2016

2016 Interim: Drones & Wildfires

You know the saying, “curiosity killed the cat”? We might want to update the saying a bit to “drone curiosity killed the taxpayer.” This past week, the Utah Legislature was called into a Special Session to increase the penalties for illegal drone use over wildfires and to give law enforcement the ability to neutralize the drones.  Illegal drone use forced the grounding of fire fighting air efforts an unbelievable 5 separate times during the battle over the Saddle Fire. Thank goodness these selfish explorations by drone lookie-loos only cost money and not lives.  One would think that it would be common sense to leave firefighters alone to do their jobs (if not offer support), but in an age fueled by “likes” and the latest YouTube video, apparently it is not enough to say there will be fines and penalties. While I will gladly support giving law enforcement the power to neutralize drones that stand in the way of protecting lives and property, it saddens me that they will have to subtract time from their primary focus to neutralize drones! 

To date the fire fighting efforts for the Saddle Fire have totaled nearly $13.7 million. This isn’t monopoly money, this is OUR money. This is money collected in taxes that could go to any number of collective needs and projects.  I want firefighters to have all the funds necessary to do their job, but one can’t help but wonder that if efforts hadn’t unnecessarily stalled 5 times, would that price tag be lower?  Would days or weeks have been shaved off the timeline to containment?  Would it have taken less gallons of water if fire fighters could have kept up a relentless counter offense with all the tools at their disposal? We may never know the true dollar amounts of what “drone curiosity” cost us.

The money, resources, and people it takes to fight a fire like this are staggering. At the peak of the blaze, nearly 675 fire fighters were engaged in 24/7 operations. Nearly 490,000 gallons of water and 392,000 gallons of flame retardant have been used on this fire. 2,300 acres of forest habitat is burned to a crisp and the fire came within 0.5 mile of homes and property. My thanks and gratitude goes out to our firefighters; brave men and women that answered the call to protect a beautiful mountain valley community. I will gladly help secure the funding and tools so they can do this difficult and hazardous job, including giving them the means to remove illegal drones from the skies

Drones can be fun, useful, and they can do jobs that would be dangerous for a person to do. But they can also be costly. The person or persons that decided their own voyeuristic needs were more important than firefighter safety or the economic pressure on taxpayers needs to be held responsible.  I truly hope the person that flew the drone over the Saddle Fire is caught and punished, but in the meantime, I will rest easier knowing firefighters and law enforcement can do their jobs.    

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