The B.C. government is calling for stiffer penalties for the illegal use of drones after unmanned aerial vehicles flew dangerously close to wildfires this summer.

Mike Morris, parliamentary secretary to the minister of forests, said the provincial government is looking for ways to stop the use of drones near wildfires.

Fighting forest fires is already a tough, dangerous job, and people who do it risk their lives every day, Morris said. “They should not have to deal with the unnecessary dangers posed by people irresponsibly flying drones near wildfires.”

Fire-fighting helicopters and planes were grounded for five hours after a drone was spotted over a wildfire near Oliver last month. A similar incident took place near Kelowna.

Morris said the B.C. government will review drone regulations, launch a public awareness campaign, and advocate for tougher penalties, enforcement and legal requirements from Transport Canada.

Federal rules prohibit the use of unmanned aerial vehicles of any size near a wildfire. The current maximum fine for an infraction is $25,000 and violators could spend up to 18 months in jail.

Morris said the province is urging Transport Canada to strengthen regulations around drones and impose stiffer penalties for those who violate the rules. The Forests Ministry wants several issues addressed, including privacy, how drones are registered, and certification of drone operators.

The province also plans to introduce legislation next spring to strengthen the Wildfire Act. The new rules may apply to drone operation.

The numbers and proliferation of drones, many of which are regarded as little more than toys, is a new phenomenon, and the government doesn’t want to be too heavy-handed, Morris said.

Instead, the province hopes to build awareness to stop problems before they happen, he said. It plans to launch a public awareness campaign aimed at stores selling drones to encourage them to inform buyers of the laws governing drone use.

“What we are trying to do is build a prevention initiative that will stop people doing things in the first place.”