By Miriam Raftery and Nadin Abbott
Photos by Jim Pelley, Michael Kurtz, Jim Colby, J. Rummler
December 16, 2013 (Campo) – A wind turbine on a ridge overlooking the Golden Acorn Casino exploded today, sparking several spot fires in surrounding brush that collectively charred about a half an acre.
David Elliott, a Manzanita tribal member, lives about quarter of a mile from the wind facility on the neighboring Campo reservation. At first, he mistook the fire sounds for gusty wind. Then he walked outside and saw the turbine burning. “The turbine did start several spot fires,” he said. “If the wind had been coming from the northwest or west then my home, one of the closets homes to the turbines, would have definitely been in danger because we have brush on this side of the turbines and we would have had a major fire.” Hear audio of his interview with ECM: http://kiwi6.com/file/bk3qywd787
Elliott says in recent days, he and his wife have been hearing unusual turbine noises. “Sounds like the bearings are going out on many of them…They screech and they howl…It sounds like many of them are pretty much ready for an overhaul,” he stated.
A spotter plane, two bomber planes and a helicopter responded, Elliott said, adding that the fixed wing aircraft “weren’t able to do a real good job because of high winds…The helicopter came in and actually saved the day.”
Retired Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mark Ostrander told ECM the scenario could have been far worse. “Luckily it was not during a Santa Ana,” said Ostrander, who has long warned that wind turbines pose fire hazards in the backcountry.
A red flag alert for high fire danger was in effect just one day earlier, but had been lifted by today. Moreover while windy, the gusts were not approaching the speeds that occur in the area during Santa Ana Winds on this cool, winter day with some humidity in the air.
Even with such favorable weather conditions, it took a response from multiple agencies including Cal-Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, Heartland Fire and possibly others to bring the blazes under control.
The project is currently offline, ECM news partner 10 News reports. The nacelle of the turbine was destroyed; cost of damage has not yet been released but a typical turbine cost runs in the millions.
Mike Mohler of Cal Fire told ECM the cause has not yet been determined. He stated that there were no problems for aircraft to drop redardant, though Elliott’s eyewitness account raises questions on the effectiveness of the drops.
The Campo turbines are far shorter than the new turbines approved by the federal and county governments for Iberdrola’s Tule Wind project in nearby McCain Valley, where approximately a hundred turbines would tower 500 feet tall. Ostrander and others have raised concerns that aerial fire drops would be ineffective at such heights, forcing ground crews to stand back and wait for the fire to burn out of the wind facility before battling what could, by then, be an inferno.
East County Magazine has contacted the Campo tribal office for comment but has not received a response.
Gamesa, manufacturer of turbines at the Kumeyaay Wind facility in Campo, has a troubled track record of turbines that have caught fire, as well as washing its hands of responsibility for blade failures including those at the same facility where today’s fire occurred..
On May 22, 2012, a Gamesa turbine caught fire at Iberdrola’s Barton 2 Wind Power Project in Iowa, North American Windpower reported. A Gamesa spokesman claimed the company’s maintenance contract had expired.
Gamesa turbines have also been linked to two turbine fires in Pennsylvania, including Iberdrola’s Locust Ridge project in 2009 and another fire at North Allegheny Ridge (not owned by Iberdrola) in 2012. Iberdrola previously had issues with Gamesa turbine blades whirling off chunks of turbine debris at the same facility. ECM has previously reported on these issues and other turbine safety concerns in an April 4, 2012 report, “The Dark Side of Green.”
Both Gamesa and Vestas have warned of problems in older models installed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However fires at plants with more recent installations make clear that fire and safety issues have still not been adequately addressed.
Gamesa refused to accept liability in five legal actions filed by U.S. wind projects over warranty disputes for hefty repairs and lost production, ECM reported back in August 2012 in a story documenting numerous problems with wind turbines. That includes $34.5 million in turbine repairs at the Kumeyaay Wind Farm in on the Campo Indian reservation. A witness told ECM that he saw a blue flash that radiated out through the wind farm during a storm in December 2009 before the project went dark. All 75 blades on all 25 turbines were replaced and the facility was offline for three months.
Gamesa blades suffered from “design and manufacturing defects,” the suits allege, Recharge News has reported. In December 2011, Recharge reported that Infigen, which recently took over the Campo project, had sent a bill to Kumeyaay after the company was unable to get Gamesa to pay up. Kumeyaay has been disputing the claim, contending that Gamesa operated the project for five years. The Campo wind farm was built by Pattern Energy, which listed the Campo project among its “successes” in its application to the California Public Utilities Commission to build Ocotillo Express wind in Ocotillo, California.
Gamesa isn’t the only turbine maker with a troubled record. As previously noted, Vestas has been plagued with problems. Last week in Tehachapi, a turbine built by Danish manufacturer NEG Micon burst into flames. In June, a wind turbine fire in the Whitewater area of Riverside County charred 367 acres after spreading to become a wild land fire despite the required clearance around turbine bases; fire authorities have not released the name of the turbine maker. The fire, which forced evacuations of homes, could have been far worse had not a witness reported it promptly to 911.
Nor are fires and serious safety issues limited to turbines. In Hawaii, on August 2, 2012 a fire destroyed a battery warehouse at First Wind’s Kahuka wind farm. A previous fire had also occurred in the battery facility in April 2011, the Honolulu Star Advertiser reports. The battery energy storage system designed by Xtreme Power of Texas had been touted as a solution to power spikes.
In 2009, a GE wind turbine broke in half at a New York wind facility owned by Enel, a company seeking to build a wind project in East County’s Jewel Valley. GE, which has also had problems with ice throws off turbines, now recommends that turbines be sited a safe distance from occupied structures, roads or areas used by the public. In May 2002, GE expanded its wind operations by acquiring the wind division of ENRON , the energy company that had its chief executives convicted of fraud following energy market manipulations. Is this a company whose products should be entrusted to protect public safety?
In McCain Valley, site of the proposed Tule Wind facility, turbines up to 450 feet tall with wing spans the size of football fields would be located just 455 feet from the main roadway and just 760 feet from a campground, Iberdrola told ECM. Moreover there is only one road in and one road out of the long valley. What happens if a turbine collapses or worse, a turbine sparks a fire while campers are present? Or ice is hurled off blades?
Most recently, a wind turbine sparked a wildland fire in the Netherlands on October 30, 2013. View a photo here: http://nieuws.nl/algemeen/20131030/Brand-windmolen-Verlies-collegas-hartverscheurend
Bonnie Price, past president of the East County Democratic Club, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the county and state Democratic parties to support a resolution calling for a ban on wind turbines in high fire-risk areas of East County. In response to today’s fire at the Campo wind facility, she wrote, “Sad to report, wind turbines do what many deniers say they cannot do. Chalk up another hit for SDG&E"s archaic and dangerous grid system using alternative energy resources badly.”
On the Brush Fire Partyline on Facebook, local residents sounded off as well.
“Millions of our tax dollars up in smoke,” wrote Jan Whistler-Clark.
Kelly Fuller posted, “More of these wind turbines are being planned in the eastern back country, where fire stations have been dark (no staff) for many days this summer and fall. Boulevard in particular. The fire risk is real.”
Ironically, today’s fire comes just days after the Bureau of Indian Affairs just issuing a finding of No Significant Impact for a new 1 megwatt wind turbine planned by the truck stop at Golden Acorn Casino in Boulevard.
“The process is all so corrupt, in my opinion,” concluded Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Commission and cofounder of the Protect Our Communities Foundation, one of multiple community and environmental groups that has filed suit seeking to halt the proposed Tule Wind project in McCain Valley.
Although SDG&E provided mitigation for its Sunrise Powerlink Project in McCain Valley, a foam truck provided as supposed mitigation is currently housed nearly an hour away in Morena Valley due to inconsistent staffing at the Boulevard Fire Station, ECM learned during a recent meeting with Supervisor Dianne Jacob , residents and fire officials. Overtime has been authorized to restore staffing, but it is unclear when or if the foam truck will be moved closer to the Boulevard-Campo area where major wind projects, substations and power lines all pose fire risks.
The prospect of a wind turbine sparking a brush fire in McCain Valley has residents such as David Elliott alarmed. “It’s a huge concern,” he concluded. “I’m sure that houses would be burned down and lives could be lost.”