Update: PG&E faces new questions after denying flying drone at Dixie Fire

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In response to a court order issued by Federal Probation Judge William Alsup, utility company PG&E had denied any knowledge of drone operations near the origin of the Dixie Fire – the second-largest recorded wildfire in California’s history. However, the court is now questioning PG&E’s claims, indicating that the company might know something about the drone after all.

In a court filing, PG&E had said it could not identify any individual or company who flew a drone near the Dixie Fire on the evening of July 13, 2021, when the fire started. More specifically, the utility insisted that no PG&E employee or contractor was instructed to, or did, fly a drone near the Dixie Fire on the day of its origin.

To recap quickly, a water-dropping helicopter operated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) was forced to halt fire mitigation operations on the evening of July 13 when an unidentified drone appeared over the blaze.

This 45-minute interruption happened to occur at a very critical juncture in the firefighting efforts – which ultimately resulted in the 2-acre-wide fire spreading to 500 acres overnight. Today, the Dixie Fire has been active for almost 40 days. It has caused widespread devastation, destroying hundreds of homes, and is only 35% contained.

Drone operated in the morning – but not near Dixie Fire

Now, PG&E does use drones as part of its enhanced inspection process, and on the day of the fire, the utility did have drones up in the air. But that was during the morning hours and in neighboring counties. As PG&E explained:

PG&E records reflect two PG&E contractors operated drones in the morning on July 13, 2021 in Butte and Plumas Counties. Neither flight was near the Dixie Fire, and the records indicate that both flights were complete by approximately 12:30 pm.

…PG&E’s investigation has revealed no reason to believe that any such drone operator [flying close to Dixie Fire] was acting at PG&E’s direction or on PG&E’s behalf.

Court poses more questions

The court, however, is not buying these claims. In orders issued this week, Judge Alsup pointed out that the utility company had earlier told a court-appointed monitor it believed the drone that interfered with Dixie firefighting was indeed being flown by a PG&E contractor. The order reads:

PG&E believed that the drone that interfered with Dixie firefighting on July 13 was being flown by a PG&E contractor at the time of the interference. PG&E believed that the contractor was not doing work for PG&E at the time of the interference, however, because records indicated that it had completed PG&E surveillance work for the day.

Is it true that PG&E did believe that a PG&E contractor operated the drone (regardless of whether it was on behalf of PG&E or not)? What was the source of this information? Does PG&E still believe that?

PG&E needs to submit its response to these questions by August 31, along with a sketch map of where exactly the drone was seen during firefighting efforts.

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

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