FAA Stepping Up Enforcement for Drones Interfering with Wildfire Response

Last week, the FAA amended its Compliance and Enforcement Program for enforcement against drone operators that interfere with wildfire response.  This update follows the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016, in which Congress authorized the FAA to penalize individuals up to $20,000 for knowingly or recklessly interfering with wildfire responses.  FAA personnel must send cases to the FAA Chief Counsel’s Enforcement office, signaling that the FAA believes enforcement action is the appropriate deterrent.

With the proliferation of drones, drone operations have often disrupted wildfire response efforts for years.  The FAA has repeatedly warned operators to avoid wildfire areas and that firefighting aircraft have to be grounded due to unauthorized drone flights.  For example, in August 2018, FAA issued a press release during the catastrophic California wildfire season, available here, instructing operators—“DO NOT fly near or over a wildfire.”

Although FAA investigators may have had discretion on whether to refer a case for enforcement action in the past, the new guidance requires the case to be referred to the FAA Chief Counsel’s office for enforcement action.  It also instructs that the FAA typically seeks a penalty between $15,000 and $20,000 and that the FAA will proceed with an enforcement action “regardless of the culpability of the operator.”  If the FAA believes criminal conduct may have occurred, it will refer the matter to the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

While the FAA has often relied on the education of violators in the past, particularly with recreational or model drone operators, the new guidance is a signal that the FAA believes operators are already aware of the dangers flying near wildfires and that enforcement is the necessary deterrent against future violations.

The new guidance is available here.