PG&E is using a helicopter (photographed here July 7, 2019) equipped with LIDAR locally and across the state to survey its equipment with a view to minimizing wildfire risk. Photo: Steve Crawford Credit: Steve Crawford

Berkeleyans living in or near the hills may have been aware of a low-flying helicopter over the past few days. Certainly a good number of readers got in touch with Berkeleyside to ask what the chopper was doing. Some were concerned it was there for a crime scene, others pointed out the noise pollution was not particularly appreciated over a holiday weekend.

The helicopter is part of a large effort by PG&E to assess wildfire risk. We caught up with PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian on Monday to ask for more details about the weekend activity.

“Given the continuing and growing wildfire threat, we are using helicopters equipped with LIDAR to gather data and to identify hazardous trees that could fall on lines,” she said.

LIDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging, and is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the Earth. (LIDAR is also the technology behind many self-driving vehicle technologies.)

The helicopters are distinguished by the LIDAR equipment attached to their noses; their undersides are also marked “Fire Survey.” The air inspections complement those that are conducted from the ground, Sarkissian said.

PG&E has been using LIDAR since 2010, but mainly for its transmission equipment (such as towers and large, high-voltage power lines). It was only recently that it also began to employ it to inspect distribution lines, which includes neighborhood poles and lines.

The work is important. Electrical transmission lines belonging to PG&E were determined to have caused California’s deadliest wildfire, the Camp Fire of 2018, which killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 homes, businesses and other buildings. The helicopters fly at an altitude of 300-500 feet along distribution power lines between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Some community members questioned the need to have the helicopters active on weekend days.

“We had one helicopter in the East Bay over the weekend, Sarkissian said. “Our typical schedule is to work six days a week – usually taking Sundays off. But since it was the July Fourth holiday, and the helicopter did not fly on the holiday, we worked both Saturday and Sunday this week.” The helicopter inspections started in April and will run through August throughout Northern and Central California, embracing 25,200 miles of distribution lines. Work in the East Bay — Alameda and Contra Costa counties — started last week and should be ending this week, according to Sarkissian. The inspections will take place in the Bay Area for most of July.

PG&E customers in areas where inspections are slated to take place should be receiving automated phone calls alerting them to the work, said Sarkissian.

The choppers capture imagery and data which can help identify at-risk areas and reveal patterns. “It’s an accurate way of identifying and tracking,” Sarkissian said. PG&E’s vegetation management team reviews the data and determines if branches need to be trimmed or trees removed. If vegetation is near a PG&E line, it is the utility’s responsibly to manage it.

@berkeleyside For the past 30 minutes a helicopter has been slowly circling the North Berkeley hills at a very low altitude (over Grizzly, Marin, Euclid). It has what looks to be some sort of scanning device attached to the front and is apparently searching for something.— Todd Woody (@greenwombat) July 6, 2019

@berkeleyside we’ve got some major helicopterage going on here near Downtownish Berkeley. Any word on what’s up?— Eric Panzer (@ericpanzer) July 7, 2019

Time for everyone’s favorite question “why is there a helicopter hovering over Berkeley” @berkeleyside— Hyperlexic (@Hyper_lexic) July 7, 2019

Few Californians need to be reminded of how real the risk of wildfires is. At a recent press conference held in the East Bay hills, Berkeley Fire Chief David Brannigan said it wasn’t a matter of “if” a fire occurs locally, but “when.”

However BFD recently received new funds from the city to put towards fuel management — $180,000 for equipment and disaster response training and $233,333 for vegetation management. The latter will be used to reduce unnecessary vegetation and clear out evacuation routes in the case of a fire. Brannigan said he was optimistic that wildfire prevention efforts will be well supported in Berkeley.

Sarkissian acknowledged that the helicopter inspections can be irritating. “We apologize for the disruption but we’re doing this for the safety of our communities,” she said. PG&E urges anyone with questions or concerns about the work to call 1-877-295-4949; email or visit

Avatar photo

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...