Judge questions drone’s role as Dixie Fire grows to second-largest in California’s history

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Dixie Fire, which first ignited around July 13, is now considered the second-largest recorded wildfire in California’s history. It has so far burned close to 490,000 acres and is only 21% contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, aka Cal Fire. This has prompted a judge to order an investigation into a drone that appeared over the blaze on the day of ignition, forcing Cal Fire to end air operations prematurely.

What should have remained a minor incident has turned into an unstoppable inferno with a series of delays and obstacles coming together to create the perfect storm. So now, Federal Probation Judge William Alsup has given utility company PG&E one week to explain its role in potentially starting the Dixie Fire, which along with Fly Fire has destroyed hundreds of structures and forced thousands from their homes in Northern California.

How Dixie Fire grew out of control

PG&E told regulators last month that the Dixie Fire may have been ignited when a tree fell on a power line and ignited a spark. The first indication of trouble came from a 7 a.m. power outage ticket at Cresta Dam. But it took the responding technician 9.5 hours to get to the scene of the incident due to challenging terrain and closure of a bridge because of roadworks.

When the technician finally reached the spot where trouble was brewing, it was already 4:30 p.m. The worker discovered a small fire near the ground at the base of the fallen tree. Cal Fire received the fire alert from PG&E and a team of firefighters passing across the river from the blaze at almost the same time. At that time, the fire was estimated at about 40 feet by 40 feet.

While waiting for help to arrive, the PG&E employee tried to put out the fire by himself. Meanwhile, the firefighting ground crew had to face the same issues as the PG&E worker while trying to reach the spot of the incident. And it wasn’t until 8 p.m. that the ground crew arrived at the out-of-service bridge, only to face a hike of two miles to get to the fire.

Thankfully, by that time, Cal Fire air tankers had successfully painted a box of retardant around the fire, limiting its spread. A water-dropping helicopter had also started making drops around 5:30 p.m., taking advantage of the area’s proximity to a river.

But just when their efforts were on the verge of success, an unidentified drone appeared over the blaze, forcing Cal Fire to suspend air operations. This interference by the rogue drone cost about 45 minutes in firefighting time. And by the time the airspace was declared safe, it was already dark and Cal Fire had to suspend air operations owing to a lack of nighttime air support.

It’s worth noting that, at that point, the Dixie Fire was just one to two acres and spreading slowly. It grew to 500 acres overnight. And by 8 p.m. on August 8, the incident’s 25th day, the fire had burned 489,287 acres.

Drone use under investigation

Judge Alsup has given PG&E until August 16 to provide the names of the contractor and employee that operated a drone near the Dixie Fire on the day it started, along with the details of what the drone was doing.

The judge has also asked for drone inspection reports and data that showcase the condition of the trees in the area before the start of the fire and the risk rating of the particular stretch.

Dixie Fire and firefighting drones

While a reckless drone may have initially helped to make California’s Dixie Fire the second-largest recorded wildfire in the state’s history, ironically enough, it’s drones that have been aiding in the firefighting response since.

CalFire Incident Operations Chief Mike Wink told local news outlets on July 28:

The last few nights, we have had drones that are able to carry firing devices, aerial firing devices, and do infrared flying so that the folks, the crews bringing the edge along Humboldt (Road), are able to use aerial firing devices through drones and have recon with infrared looking for spot fires, looking for where the heat is building, and making sure everything is going in a slow and controlled manner.

Read more: From spraying fire-extinguishing foam to rescuing people: Drones shape firefighting future

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