Forest fires and wind turbines: The danger no one is talking about

By Clyde MacDonald, Special to the BDN
Posted June 29, 2011, at 6:19 p.m.

Despite all that has been written about wind power, a vitally important issue has barely been mentioned. When turbines fail, blades may fall to the ground or send fragments that land up to a mile away. Turbines often catch fire, and when they do they often send flaming shards into fields and forests. Much has been said about the short-term jobs created in preparing turbine sites, but almost nothing about job losses from turbine-caused fires in our paper mills, sawmills and other forest-dependent industries.

Official information on the number and severity of turbine-induced forest fires remains largely secret and unavailable. Nonetheless, there are scattered media reports and one thorough description of the safety record of the Caithness USA Wind corporation with installations in the northwest. That one corporation experienced 110 serious wind turbine fires over a 20 year period, but there is no mention of whether some of those fires may have spread to adjacent areas.

Similarly, media references to 43 turbine fires, mostly in the U.S. and Europe, merely state “no details.” Many references do contain brief statements, such as that 22 fires were caused by lightning strikes, but again, no references to those fires spreading far from the sites. Only 25 of the reports mention that turbine fires had spread to fields and forests.

In California, one such fire burned 68 acres, another 220 acres, and in Palm Springs several “spot fires” had been generated in surrounding areas. In Hawaii, 95 acres were burned. Australia lost 80,000 acres of forests located mostly in a national park. Spain lost nearly 200 acres from one fire. A comment on a German fire mentioned that “burning debris” from a turbine had traveled several hundred meters from the site. In Holland, three burning blades from a mere 270-foot tower cast a 50-foot flaming shard 220 feet from the site.

The most dramatic report emanated from Wales where “great balls of fire” landed more than 150 yards away, causing a hillside to burn. Fearing more forest fires, an Australian province enacted a law banning placements of wind towers near wooded areas. Yet, in heavily forested Maine, all of our wind power sites have been approved without even considering that turbines have often caused forest fires.

It requires little imagination to foresee that 400-foot blazing turbines, located in the most heavily winded areas along steep mountain slopes, could easily shoot flaming debris into wooded areas.

Mere fire engines cannot douse turbine fires. In every report, firefighters had to allow the turbine fires to burn themselves out. All they could hope to do was prevent the fires from spreading to other areas. In Australia, California and Germany, massive firefighting equipment evidently came from nearby areas.

That 220-acre California fire had been contained by 45 firefighters, two helicopters and two bulldozers. The 69-acre fire was contained with the help of 15 fire engines, four hand crews and four planes. A 5-acre California fire was extinguished by six fire engines, three water trucks, two helicopters, two tanker planes, a bulldozer and three hand crews.

When Maine experiences turbine fires, one wonders what allowances have been made to buy, store, maintain and make use of such equipment. Where will the personnel and equipment be located? Who will pay for them? Has the Department of Environmental Protection and Land Use Regulation Commission required bonding or insurance policies that would cover the costs of forest losses and jobs in our woods-related industries?

We needed a moratorium that would have allowed us to study all questions related to the turbine-caused forest fire dangers, but the Maine Legislature recently rejected a moratorium proposal.

We may hope DEP and LURC will forgo further site approvals until these and other questions are answered satisfactorily. General Electric reportedly recently wrote to a potential wind developer that its newer turbines rarely catch fire, presumably unlike the older ones already in place. If true, should Maine’s agencies require the installation of GE turbines only?

Forest fires present another unanswered question and one more reason why our permitting agencies should forgo approving more wind turbine sites in Maine’s wooded areas for the remainder of this year.

Clyde MacDonald of Hampden was an aide to Sens. Edmund Muskie and George Mitchell.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/06/29/opinion/forest-fires-and-wind-turbines-the-danger-no-one-is-talking-about/ printed on July 25, 2014