Illegal drones temporarily ground firefighting helicopters

Two people are facing charges after drones interfered with helicopters fighting the Chetamon wildfire north of the townsite on Tuesday.

During Wednesday’s Chetamon Wildfire press conference, plans section chief Katie Ellsworth with Parks Canada reminded the public that flying drones is illegal in national parks unless the user has obtained a special permit.

Droning without a permit could result in law enforcement action and fines up to $25,000.

In this case, it could also contribute to the dangerous possibility of the wildfire approaching the Jasper townsite or other communities.

The reason for the reminder: there were two drone incidents on Tuesday that shut down the helicopter bucketing while the airspace was compromised.

“Once those drones were found and those reports were shared with the pilots, all eight helicopters had to sit down until we were able to confirm that the drones were no longer flying in the air,” Ellsworth said.

Critical fire suppression operations were halted for approximately an hour in the middle of the peak burning period.

“If this activity occurs during a very active wildfire day, it could result in an increase in fire behaviour,” Ellsworth said.

“It can result in the injury or death of a firefighter. If there is an interaction between a drone and a helicopter while they're flying, it could be catastrophic to the pilot and to the helicopter.”

Two individuals are now facing charges. No further details were released.

It is illegal to use drones and any unmanned aerial vehicles in Jasper National Park.

Despite this, it is not uncommon, said Sean Prockter, co-proprietor of Jasper Hikes and Tours along with his wife Joy.

There are usually several occasions every year when he has to tell people to take them down at sites such as Sulfur Skyline, Bald Hills and Cavell Meadows.

“Those few in particular, I see quite a lot of drone use, unfortunately,” Prockter said. “You see them on the roads, too, driving up the Maligne Valley. I've often seen people at Medicine Lake trying to fly every time. Patricia Lake… I’ve stopped people there. It's pretty common.”

Without going so far as to say that such illegal and dangerous drone activity is trending upward, he did say that several years ago he stopped being more lenient with his approach to drone operators.

“Drone use has been 10 years now. People should know that it's illegal in the park unless they have a permit, and so I've been a bit more stern about telling people that it's illegal and to take them down right away.”

Drones can negatively affect wildlife and pose risks to people as well. Parks Canada asked members of the public to report all drone activity to Jasper Dispatch at 780-852-6155.

Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh