Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Drone complicates response to fire west of Helena

Burn marks are visible on Mount Helena, just west of the city's downtown
Ellis Julin
Yellowstone Public Radio
A fire on Mount Helena west of the city's downtown was quickly put out Sunday, despite a delay from an interfering drone.

A civilian drone delayed an aerial response to a fire west of downtown Helena over the weekend.

Aerial attacks on the Mount Helena Fire were halted for 12 minutes after the drone was spotted on the scene.

John Huston is the fire management officer with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“When we have an aircraft flying around in that airspace and we have no communication, when we can't ask where it's going, what it's doing, nothing like that," he said, "we pull all of our air resources out of the area so we don't have any problems.”

Huston said aerial attacks can only resume when the drone is confirmed to be out of the area. Despite their small size, drones flying around a fire pose a big threat to pilot safety.

“The last thing we want to have any kind of mid air collision with anything, whether that's a small little drone, or a big other plane," Huston said.

The U.S. Forest Service reported drones interfered with firefighting efforts 34 times last year nationwide.

Huston says Helena’s city attorney and DNRC lawyers are meeting to decide whether to charge the drone’s operator.

The Mount Helena Fire was put out a few hours after it was first reported Sunday afternoon. Huston credits the City of Helena’s fuel reduction efforts for helping crews quickly contain the fire.

“There was a lot less of a crown fire," he said. "There was an individual torching the trees, but all the thinning [the city] had done really limited that fire from getting up in the canopy and making a big run to the ridge.”

Helena Fire Chief John Campbell echoed Huston, saying effective fuel reduction doesn’t prevent fires from happening, but it makes them less severe, and easier to control.

The cause of the Mount Helena fire is under investigation.