December 22, 2022

Hefty fine issued for drone operation during wildfire

Jon Robinson

— By Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh (Photo: Parks Canada)

The penalty was steep for one person caught operating a drone during the Chetamon wildfire.

Rajwinder Singh must pay a fine of $10,000 before June 8, 2023. It is the largest fine ever issued for illegal drone operation in any place operated by Parks Canada.

During his court date on Dec. 8, Singh pleaded guilty to the charge of operating an aircraft without a permit under section 2(3) of the Aircraft Access Regulations of the Canada National Parks Act.

All national parks across Canada are no drone zones. Flying drones in any national park is a risk to visitors and staff, a disturbance to wildlife and can lead to negative experiences for others.

Flying a drone in this instance could have had much more dire consequences.

On Sept. 6, eight helicopters were fighting the then out-of-control Chetamon wildfire. They were forced to ground, putting their operations to a halt for more than one hour after themillegal drone was sighted in the area.

“This is a deadly serious matter,” said Dave Argument, resource conservation officer with Parks Canada.

Flying a drone near a wildfire not only endangers firefighters and everyone else working in the area, but it also worsens the threat that the fire already poses to nearby communities.

Drones are considered uncontrolled aircraft in the sky that prevent pilots and aircrews from being in flight. Helicopters are forced to ground, which also leaves frontline fire crews without an escape route.

It also gives the wildfire another chance to grow.

“It also runs the risk of losing control of the fire unnecessarily where we could be fighting it,” Argument said.

“Suddenly, we’re grounded and we lose our ability to action the fire while those machines are on the ground.”

Operating the illegal drone also breaches Transport Canada Canadian Aviation regulations that state no aircraft may fly within a five-nautical-mile radius of a wildfire for the safety of helicopters and aircraft involved in the fighting of forest fires.

Argument said that drones are still being seen more frequently despite this.

“It is really on the user to understand what the regulations are, what they can’t do and what they can do with these new tools that are becoming so widely available, and the consequences of their actions.”

He added that this case wasn’t even the most serious of the four instances of illegal drone users charged during the Chetamon wildfire. One individual decided to fly a drone right over the wildfire zone. The others were flying in proximity to the wildfire zone.

People charged with violating the Canada National Parks Act and its regulations are subject to a court appearance in Jasper and may be fined up to $25,000.

To learn more about drone regulations and flying in national parks, people should visit Parks Canada’s webpage on drones or unmanned air vehicles.

“Across the board, drone operation in national parks in Canada is illegal,” Argument said.

Permits are never issued for recreational drone use because of the disturbance they cause to wildlife. They also infringe on the reasonable expectation of privacy that other parks visitors enjoy.