County Democrats gut fire protection resolution, while Republican supervisors also fail to protect County residents from wind turbine fires
By Miriam Raftery
August 24, 2012 (San Diego's East County)--The San Diego Democratic Central Committee this week passed a measure calling on County Supervisors to increase firefighting resources-- but removed a key provision that would have urged lawmakers to ban wind turbines in fire-prone East County.
Wind turbines have been responsible for starting hundreds of fires around the world, including wildfires, but firefighters cannot fight a fire burning in a 500-foot-tall wind turbine whirling off burning debris. With Supervisors poised to approve a wind ordinance opening the door to numerous turbines in the backcountry, the vote was a major disappointment to residents concerned about the clear threat to public safety posed by wind turbines in our fire-prone region.
The resolution was introduced by Bonnie Price, a delegate from East County, who cited examples of wildfires caused by wind turbines; she stressed that our firefighting resources are severely strained at a time when fire danger is higher than ever before. Experts who wanted to speak in favor were not allowed to make presentations, including the award-winning editor of East County Magazine. I have reported on wildfires in East County for over 20 years, founded a wildfire alert service and wrote dozens of investigative reports on wind turbine issues, including fire danger.
“I am deeply disappointed that the Democratic Committee has opted to endanger lives across East County, just as three of our Republican Supervisors recently voted to do when they approved the first industrial-scale wind turbines on country-controlled lands without regard for public safety,” said Raftery who asked to speak though she is not a member of the Committee. “Ignoring dangers and relying on testimony from partisans who provided factually inaccurate information puts us all at risk of more deadly fires like those in 2003 and 2007. Our Supervisors will next vote on whether to approve a wind ordinance that will open the door for hundreds, even thousands more dangerous wind turbines in our most fire-prone and difficult areas for firefighters to access.”
Howard Wayne introduced a motion to remove the wind turbine clause. Also speaking against it was Mike Bullock of the Sierra Club. Both revealed ignorance on wildfire issues and a complete disregard for the safety of East County residents.
Wind turbines have been pushed forward nationally by President Barack Obama's administration and by Governor Jerry Brown in an effort to slow global warming through renewable energy, a laudable goal. Some Republicans also back wind energy, including Michael Crimmins, the Republican candidate seeking to represent the southeast portion of East County and replace retiring Congressman Bob Filner. Both Congressman Filner, a Democrat, and Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Republican, have taken positions against Tule Wind. So has Assemblyman Brian Jones.
Serious problems with wind energy are emerging. One of the most grave is wildfire danger. The wind industry has falsely claimed such incidents are rare. In fact, hundreds of wind turbine fires have occurred around the world, including several in California.
In Australia, a wildfire started by a wind turbine scorched 200,000 acres, leading to a ban on turbines near forests and fields. The View Fire in Riverside this summer charred 367 acres after a wind turbine malfunctioned and exploded. In Texas, a wind turbine explosion on a legislator’s ranch started a wildfire.
Iberdrola, which seeks to build the wind turbines approved by San Diego Supervisors at the Tule Wind project in McCain Valley in East County, has a contract to buy at least 50% of its wind turbines in the next few years from Gamesa, in which it owns a 19% interest. Gamesa is being sued for its equipment causing fires and malfunctioning in at least five locations. Iberdrola refuses to tell the press and public if it intends to use Gamesa turbines or blades here. (See ECM's story, Will Iberdrola use Gamesa turbines or blades at Tule Wind?)
A wind facility in Campo built by Pattern Energy predecessor Babcock and Brown (founded by the Carlyle Group), blew apart during a storm, hurling debris long distances. If not for the fact that this occurred during a snow storm, a wildfire might well have occurred. Oil was photographed leaking down the turbines after an explosion that has never been explained officially. A witness described it in an interview with ECM as a “blue flash” that radiated out through the wind farm before it went dark and was offline for three months, requiring replacement of all 75 blades on all 25 turbines.
Each wind turbine manufactured contains over 200 gallons of flammable lubricating oil, posing hazards even from fires that start for reasons other than a malfunction of the turbine itself. Wind turbines, which are now around 500 feet tall—much taller than Campo’s –actually act as lightning rods, attracting lightning strikes. There are many instances of wind turbine fires caused by lightning strikes.
East County is experiencing more frequent and severe lightning strikes. Recently a single storm caused over 1,000 lightning strikes here. Over 600 occurred in a storm a week or so earlier. These caused many fires, straining firefighting resources. The military had to be called in to fight lighting fires locally – and we have not even reached peak fire season, when Santa Ana winds can reach up to 100 mph, as they did fueling the 2007 Harris wildfire.
Mark Ostrander, a retired Cal Fire Battalion Chief, has testified to County planners that wind turbine fires cannot be fought on the ground or in the air. Ladders aren’t tall enough to reach a fire in a 500 foot turbine. It is too dangerous for firefighters to go under whirling blades or even turbines shut down due to whirling, burning debris and potential for multi-ton blades to come crashing down.
Firefighting aircraft can’t make water or fire retardant chemical drops over wind turbines. Such drops work best at heights of about 150 feet. Turbines are 500 feet and moreover, each wind facility has energized power lines which pose dangers to firefighters.
“If a fire starts there, firefighters will just have to wait until it burns out of the wind facility,” Ostrander has said. Other firefighting experts have confirmed his concerns.
McCain Valley has just one road in and out. It takes 20 minutes or more to reach campgrounds on public lands inside this federal recreation area. The wind turbines would block the only exit. How will campers escape if turbines lining the road catch fire? There are also homes close by.
One individual who testified against the resolution and in favor of allowing these dangerous turbines falsely claimed that there are mitigation measures that work. This is untrue. The Environmental Impact Report for Tule Wind clearly states that fire danger is severe and cannot be fully mitigated. While Iberdrola has offered to add a water tank, what good is that if the water can’t be applied safely until the fire escapes the hundreds of acres covered by the turbines? These turbines are set to be placed just 900 feet from a campground and 550 feet from the only roadway, on both sides.
Another Central Committee member made the misguided statement that there “must be some places in East County” where industrial wind facilities would be safe. He obviously hadn’t bothered to look at the map of wind resources for San Diego County, which has very limited wind resources and only marginal wind speeds at best. Every wind resource area listed is in a place that historically has had severe wildfires and moreover, these are in areas with difficult access for firefighters, where fires pose serious dangers to residents nearby.
A few weeks ago a wind industry expert falsely told County planners that areas targeted by the industry for turbines are remote and that nobody lives there. One such place mentioned is Ranchita. This month, a massive wildfire in Ranchita started by lightning forced evacuation of 60 homes and swiftly spread to engulf thousands of acres. The Central Committee would not allow testimony from a photojournalist present, Nadin Abbott, who was at the scene covering that fire which spread swiftly through the night.
The areas targeted for wind turbines in East County are also prime wildlife habitat, among the last pristine areas left. Wind facilities in Ocotillo and McCain Valley divide up critical bighorn sheep habitat and a third project is proposed nearby. Last week a fire scorched much of their remaining habitat. Wildfires destroy raptor nests and habitat for countless other animals and birds in a region that already suffered some of the state’s worst wildfires. Over 99% of the pine trees in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park have already burned down, and will not recover in our lifetime.
Mitigation measures have not proven effective. For example, the View Fire in Riverside swiftly became a wildfire even though adequate clearance had been done around the base of the turbines, Cal Fire told ECM. To maintain such clearance requires use of pesticides, which further endangers wildlife when poison is applied hundreds of feet around the base of 100 or more turbines in a single site amid prime wildlife habitat.
Other areas targeted include Santa Ysabel near the sites of several recent wildfires in nearby Warner Springs, the Laguna mountains which firefighters warn is overdue for a major wildfire and which in the past sparked a wildfire that burned to the coast, and areas north of I-8 in Boulevard in the path of the deadly 2007 wildfires.
Each wind facility also requires power lines and substations. SDG&E admits that its power lines caused 166 fires in five years. That includes two of the major wildfires in 2007. The new Sunrise Powerlink has already had several malfunctions resulting in small fires and was listed as a “severe and unmitigatable fire hazard” in the state’s EIR. Transformers at substations can also explode and cause fires.
The power from these minimal-wind-speed sites could easily be replaced by solar power on our roofs and parking lots. Solar has plunged in price and does not pose the serious fire hazards. One speaker claimed that solar panels can cause fires. While anything electrical can potentially cause a fire, these are rare and even should one occur, they can easily be fought by conventional firefighting means—unlike towering wind turbines, which are impossible to extinguish once they burst in to flames high above the ground, hurling burning debris off moving blades, each with a wingspan the size of a football field.
We are in the midst of the worst drought since 1940, the federal government reports. Federal fire officials warn that we could be facing the worst fire season ever. Already we’ve had more severe fires in 2012 than normal due to tinder-dry conditions. Global warming is also exacerbating wildfire dangers, producing hotter, drier conditions that fuel more severe wildfires. We are in the most severe drought level in the nation here in San Diego’s East County.
At the same time, firefighting budgets and resources have been slashed statewide and locally. Cal Fire now has only three men per engine, not four. Local fire agencies in jurisdictions around the state have shut fire stations, cut manpower, and some are running paramedic crews on engines. An Orange County Fire Chief who writes a column for ECM has warned that mutual aid is stretched too thin and that many fire departments in neighboring counties will not be able to send help when we need it most. If a severe wildfire occurs here when other major fires are burning elsewhere, we could be left on our own.
On top of all those high risk scenarios, Al Qaeda in May urged its followers to spark terror in the U.S. by setting wildfires in forests, including Southern California as a target. To put up hundreds of wind turbines filled with flammable oil in areas where such fires can spread swiftly and not be extinguished easily is utterly irresponsible.
We don’t need more fire hazards in East County. Wind turbines may make sense in areas that don’t pose fire dangers, where they are not near homes or critical wildlife habitat, and where other issues can be adequately addressed (though there are also growing concerns over impacts on health from infrasound and stray voltage, environmental damage and cultural resource impacts). They certainly don’t make sense in East County’s many fire-prone areas, including proposed projects in narrow box-canyons where people could swiftly be trapped and incinerated.
Supervisor Dianne Jacob has argued passionately against putting wind turbines into our backcountry, based on the serious fire dangers that they posed. Supervisor Pam Slater-Priced joined Jacob in voting no on the first five turbines (Tule Wind) but Supervisors Ron Roberts, Bill Horn and Greg Cox pushed that measure through. The same is likely to occur with the broader wind ordinance--unless residents in their districts and others contact them to speak out against the severe and unmitigable wildfire risk.
I urge all County residents to call on our Supervisors to reject the proposed wind turbine ordinance and on our leaders in both political parties to do their own research, listen to the experts and to the people who could be victimized by wind turbine fires-- and not rely on untrained individuals who are not educated on the facts.
Lives are at stake. Those who are taking irresponsible positions while ignoring the evidence will have blood on their hands for fatalities and injuries that occur in a future wildfire caused or fueled by wind turbines. These turbines don’t belong in East County, an area with only marginal winds, but where wildfire is an ever-present danger to us all.