Premier plans to get tough on drones over wildfires

The B.C. government is pledging harsh punishment for people who fly drones over a wildfire, who are boating on a lake where an air tanker needs to fill up, or motorists or campers who go into restricted wildfire areas.

"If you interfere with firefighting efforts you are going to be eligible for up to $100,000 fine and one year in jail," said Premier Christy Clark during a press conference Friday afternoon at the Prince George Fire Equipment Depot on 22nd Avenue. "The biggest thing we are worried about at the moment is drones on the scene because it's a new phenomenon and there are more and more of them. The problem with drones is it's impossible to identify where they're coming from. So as we're talking about this we're working with law enforcement and RCMP to figure out ways we can, for example, find a way for the drone owner to be identified."

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Public awareness could be the key.

"It's hard to believe that anyone would think that it would be OK to fly a drone on top of a forest fire while there are men and women putting there lives at risk in helicopters and on the ground," said Clark. "I mean, really, it's almost incomprehensible and I'm sure those people exist though. So we could be thinking about education at the front end - the point of sale for the drone - so people know you don't fly it at an airport, which sometimes people do, you don't fly it over a forest fire, which sometimes people do."

Clark said tregistration to identify the drone owner and ways to get them out of the air using technology are also being considered.

"And then holding people accountable if they get in the way," said Clark. "Before this problem gets even worse, we've got to tackle it."

A lot of people in the fire suppression business say it feels more like August than April, said Clark, especially in the wake of the 150 fires that have burned in British Columbia so far and specifically the 34 wildfires that started in a single day in the northeast this week.

"We are already three times the average and this may be the worst fire year in 15 years if not 30 years," said Clark. "This is the new reality in British Columbia and it means we need to continue to make more investments in fighting fires."

There has been $27 million more invested every year to prepare for emergencies and fight fires, more air tankers mobilized earlier every year, more than 200 BC Wildfire service staff have been deployed in the Prince George Fire Centre, more than 1,400 fire fighters are available this season and another 1,600 are available in an emergency, added Clark.

Over a third of the wildfires in B.C. were started by humans last year.

"Which means they were avoidable and preventable," said Clark. "It would mean that men and women standing behind me (gesturing to the firefighters on site during the press conference) that fight these fires and put their lives at risk wouldn't have to do it a third of the time if all of us were a lot more careful."

Clark said failure to comply with fire restrictions will bring a fine that's more than tripled to $1,100.

Clark said she's hopeful the fines will help people to obey the rules around fire safety.

"I think for people who are a little bit less careful, sometimes fines make an impact and can make a real difference," said Clark. "Sadly, we need to make examples sometimes of people who aren't obeying the law and I think those higher fines are part of it."

Human caused fires start with cigarettes, a spark from a campfire, a chain saw, or a vehicle's brakes or kids playing with matches, added Clark. Two boys, nine and 12, playing with matches was the very cause of a fire at Valley View Road in the Hart Monday night.

"Those are things we all need to education ourselves about because British Columbia, like the rest of the world, is getting dryer rather than wetter," said Clark. "And this problem is only going to get worse as climate change overtakes us."

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