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Regional Interests

Investigators Probing PG&E’s Possible Link to Fateful Dixie Fire Drone Flight

The Butte County district attorney is investigating whether a drone that reportedly interfered with firefighting aircraft in the crucial first hours of the Dixie Fire was operated by PG&E or one of its contractors.

District Attorney Mike Ramsey says the drone’s incursion over the fire on July 13 may have prevented Cal Fire aircraft from stopping the blaze when it had burned an acre or two. As of Tuesday, the Dixie Fire had consumed nearly a half-million acres of northern Sierra Nevada forest and become the largest single-origin (non-complex) fire in modern California history.

Cal Fire and local prosecutors are investigating whether a PG&E power line touched off the fire, which began four weeks ago near one of the utility’s hydroelectric dams on the North Fork of the Feather River.

Ramsey said Monday the company has reported that it had been operating drones over Plumas County the day the fire started, but not close to its ignition point near Cresta Dam. He added the company has been cooperating with his investigation.

“PG&E had drones, they indicated, not in that area but up in the Greenville area” on the day the fire started, Ramsey said.

Greenville, a town of 1,000 that burned down last week as the Dixie Fire grew to its current size of about 487,000 acres, is 30 miles northeast of where the fire started.

Ramsey said his office is also checking whether a PG&E contractor might have been responsible for the drone flight.

“PG&E does contract with drone companies and has for a while” as part of its efforts to improve maintenance of its power infrastructure, Ramsey said.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E’s probation for a criminal conviction arising from the 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion, is also seeking information about PG&E’s possible connection to the drone flight.

In an order issued last Friday night, Alsup told the company he wants to know who was operating the aircraft and what they were doing.

“Describe the purpose of the drone’s surveillance,” Alsup wrote. “If the drone was not working for PG&E when it flew close to the Dixie Fire, please inform the court for whom the drone was working. Also explain what the drone was doing.”

Alsup ordered the company to respond to his questions by Aug. 16.

Asked after Alsup issued his directive whether the company was involved with the July 13 drone flight that interfered with Cal Fire or any other drone operations at or near the site where the Dixie Fire started, PG&E spokesperson Matt Nauman said in a Saturday email, “We’re aware of the judge’s order and we’ll respond by the deadline.”

PG&E has reported in filings to the court and the California Public Utilities Commission that an electrical problem was detected just before 7 a.m. on July 13 at Cresta Dam, on the North Fork of the Feather River 25 miles northeast of Oroville.

It took PG&E workers more than five hours after the first indication of trouble to trace it to a section of a 12,000-volt power line located about 800 vertical feet up a steep slope opposite the dam. It took more than four additional hours for one of those utility workers, delayed by a steep, narrow, twisting road and an out-of-commission bridge, to get to the power line. There he found a 70-foot Douglas fir had fallen across the line’s three wires and ignited a small fire.

The worker tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the blaze, which by that point measured about 40 feet by 40 feet. A fire crew that happened to be driving up the other side of the river on Highway 70 had already spotted the blaze and, a few minutes after 5 p.m., reported it to a Cal Fire dispatcher.

Cal Fire responded with two air tankers that dropped fire retardant to limit the spread of the blaze while a helicopter made repeated water drops on the blaze to hold it in check until ground crews arrived. Slowed down by the same narrow road and out-of-service bridge that hampered the PG&E worker’s journey, the first handful of firefighters didn’t arrive on the scene for more than two hours after the incident was first reported.

Then at about 7:45 p.m., with about 45 minutes of daylight remaining to continue flying, a Cal Fire air attack pilot spotted a drone over the fire. Following standard practice for wildland firefighting, Cal Fire suspended air operations, and the air attack spotter plane, tankers and helicopter returned to their bases.

Ramsey says he believes the drone prevented Cal Fire from stopping the blaze. Aircraft “were working their way in toward the center to put the fire dead out” when the drone appeared, he said last month.

Who was flying the drone has remained a mystery.

According to Cal Fire dispatch recordings, fire personnel on Highway 70 conducted a short, unsuccessful search for the drone operator after the aircraft was detected.

A Cal Fire report filed after the incursion said the air attack pilot — who functions as a sort of air-traffic controller for other firefighting pilots — had been able to follow the drone a short distance up the river from the spot where the Dixie Fire was slowly growing beyond control.

“Eventually visual contact with the drone was lost when it descended into the Rock Creek drainage,” the report said. Rock Creek, about 2 miles upstream from the fire’s starting point, is the site of a PG&E powerhouse.

Asked whether he was investigating whether a drone might have been flown from the Cresta Dam, immediately across the river from the fire, Ramsey said the Rock Creek powerhouse was more of an area of interest.

Declining to go into detail about the progress of the investigation, he added his office has developed “fruitful leads” about the identity of the drone operator.

Copyright 2021 KQED