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PG&E denies flying the drone that halted fight of Dixie Fire

The drone grounded firefighting aircraft at the start of what is now the second largest wildfire in recorded state history.

(CN) — Pacific Gas and Electric denied it was responsible for operating a drone that may have let the Dixie Fire grow out of control at a pivotal time, according to court documents filed Monday. 

Responding to an order by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, California’s largest utility said it has no knowledge of who operated the drone near the origin of the Dixie Fire, which PG&E has already said occurred near where their equipment malfunctioned. 

“PG&E has seen no indication that any PG&E employee or contractor was instructed or asked to — or did — fly a drone along the Bucks Creek 1101 Circuit or near the Dixie Fire on July 13, 2021,” the company said in the court filing. The Dixie Fire started July 13.

Cal Fire was forced to ground its aerial response due to a drone flying in the area, which may have prevented the firefighting agency from getting the spot fire under control. It has since grown to 570,000 acres and destroyed 1,100 buildings, making it the second largest wildfire in recorded California history. 

The company also responded to Alsup’s request regarding the origin of the Fly Fire, which has since merged with the Dixie Fire, saying the investigation is ongoing. 

However, the company did report there was a malfunction in the power lines near the fire's origin at 4:51 p.m. on July 22. The U.S. Forest Service maintains the fire started at 5:15 p.m. the same day. 

The company said preliminary indications show a white fir tree next to power lines may have sparked the fire. 

“While assisting the USFS, PG&E observed that the conductors had what appeared to be burn marks or other signs of disturbance near the areas that may have been in contact with the white fir and also that the white fir had burn marks near the areas that may have previously been in contact with the conductors,” the company said in the court filing. 

Alsup, who monitors the company's compliance with mandated safety protocols as part of its criminal probation stemming from a gas pipeline blast that leveled a San Francisco-area neighborhood in 2010, has routinely demanded explanations from the company when it appears their equipment is to blame for sparking wildfires.

Last year, Alsup charged PG&E with violating protocols in the Zogg Fire, which killed four people in Shasta County. 

PG&E further claimed in Monday's court filing that aside from the two fires in question, its equipment has not sparked a fire larger than 100 acres. 

As the Dixie Fire continues to spread unchecked in Northern California, PG&E announced it may preemptively shut off power to thousands of homes in the Bay Area with dry windy weather in the forecast. 

“Forecasted offshore dry winds mean PG&E might need to proactively turn off power for safety in small portions of 16 counties on Tuesday night,” the company said late Sunday night. 

Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties, which have been ravaged by fires in recent years, are included in the list. But the utility said Butte and Shasta counties, near where the Dixie Fire is burning, will be the epicenter of the possible shutoffs. 

Approximately 27,000 customers could have their power turned off Tuesday night. 

The company said it would refrain from the shutoff if meteorological conditions shift or warrant a different strategy. 

“PG&E has begun sending 48-hour advance notifications to customers in targeted areas where PG&E may need to proactively turn power off for safety to reduce the risk of wildfire from energized power lines,” the company said in a statement on Sunday. 

The company’s power lines have been responsible for some of the worst fires in California history, including the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and razed the town of Paradise in 2018. 

Typically, the energized power lines either malfunction and create sparks in surrounding dry brush or can come into contact with trees, also causing a fire. 

Cal Fire officials told the press Monday morning that a red flag warning would take effect Monday afternoon and that the Dixie Fire could grow more active Monday evening into Tuesday. 

“The fuels conditions are worse than we’ve ever seen,” said Jay Lusher, incident commander. “The fire behavior is worse than we’ve ever seen.”

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