FBI, FAA Investigating Dixie Fire Drone Incident

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Smoke fills the evening air on Aug. 9, 2021, in the Plumas County town of Greenville. The town of 1,000 was virtually destroyed when the Dixie Fire raced through the area on Aug. 4 and Aug. 5, 2021.  (Maranie R. Staab/Getty Images)

Updated 5:50 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday it's working closely with the FBI to investigate a drone flight that interfered with Cal Fire aircraft during the first hours of the agency's fight to control the Dixie Fire.

The FAA's announcement came in a one-sentence emailed statement. An agency spokesperson referred questions to the FBI's Sacramento field office, which didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the scope of the investigation.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who is leading a probe into the fire, said his office reached out to the FBI soon after the July 13 incident. He said investigators have been taking advantage of FBI technology — what he called "trick resources" — to try to identify the drone and its operator.

Federal law provides for a civil penalty of as much as $20,000 for any drone operator who "knowingly or recklessly interferes with a wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response effort." California law makes it a misdemeanor for a drone operator to interfere with emergency responders, including firefighters.

On July 13, a Cal Fire pilot observed a drone over the fire, just hours after it started in the Feather River Canyon northeast of Oroville. The drone appeared as the agency's air tankers and a water-dropping helicopter worked to extinguish the blaze.

Ramsey, who's leading a local law enforcement investigation of the incident, has said interference from the drone may have prevented the fire from being contained when it was still a minor incident.

The blaze escaped control and over the past four weeks has burned through more than a half-million acres of northern Sierra forest and destroyed the Plumas County town of Greenville.

Cal Fire units conducted a brief, unsuccessful search for the drone operator after the remotely operated aircraft was seen near the fire. The fire agency also alerted the sheriffs' offices in Butte and Plumas counties and the California Highway Patrol.

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As KQED reported earlier this week, Ramsey's office is investigating whether the drone was operated by PG&E or one of its contractors.

Separately, U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco has ordered the company to say what it knows about drone flights in the area of the fire. Alsup is overseeing PG&E's criminal probation for violating federal pipeline safety laws and obstructing a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the company's deadly 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion.

PG&E says no drones authorized to do work for the company were operating in Butte and Plumas counties at the time of the incursion.

Cal Fire and the district attorneys' offices in Butte and Plumas counties are investigating what started the Dixie Fire. PG&E has acknowledged in filings with the California Public Utilities Commission and Judge Alsup's court that the blaze started at a site where a 70-foot Douglas-fir had fallen across its power lines.