By Miriam Raftery
July 31, 2012 (San Diego’s East County) – With County Supervisors poised to consider approval of Tule Wind and a wind ordinance that could open much of fire-prone East County to wind energy development, a wildland fire that started at a wind turbine facility in Riverside County last month provides fuel for opponents concerned about fire risks posed by industrial-scale wind projects.
“The fire started with the windmill itself,” Captain Greg Ewing with Cal Fire/Riverside Fire Department informed ECM today.
Despite extensive area cleared around the base of each turbine, Ewing said, the blaze still spread into a wildland fire that swiftly engulfed 367 acres. If not for prompt reporting by a witness, it could have been far worse.
According to Cal Fire's report on the incident, The View Fire occurred in the Whitewater area east of Cabazon in Riverside County on June 17, 2012 at a wind facility near Cottonwood Road and Desert View. A caller who dialed 911 initially reported seeing flames and “one confirmed windmill on fire” at 9:15 p.m.
By 9:33 p.m., CHP stated it had received multiple reports that there were “several windmills on fire” along with a ridgeline near I-10 and Haughen-Lehmann Way. Callers also reporting “popping loud noises” as the turbines burned. Both ground crews and aircraft battled the blaze.
Residents in the box canyon were evacuated, including 90-year-old Barbara York, who had time to grab only an overnight bag. York was “frantic,” the Desert Sun reported at the time.
At 12:34 a.m. on June 18, Cal Fire’s report on the fire indicates that a request had been made for Edison, since power lines had caught fire in the middle of the wind turbines. More than 100 firefighters fought the fire through the night.
The blaze was ultimately stopped at 367 acres, including 100 acres of public lands on Bureau of Land Management property. The final report blames “equipment”, specifically a “generator” and “arcing” for the fire.
Asked directly whether the generator that caused the fire was an actual wind turbine, Captain Ewing confirmed, “Yes ma’am.” He also confirmed that ground had been cleared around the base of each turbine, the blaze swiftly spread to become a wildland fire despite those precautions. Captain Ewing did not know the precise cause of the turbine malfunction. “Several companies lease the land,” he noted. “Other companies own the windmills and others service them.”
Asked whether Cal Fire intends to seek compensation for the firefighting costs, Ewing replied, “I can’t comment on that.” He did not have the total cost of the firefighting efforts to quell the wildfire.
Wind developers have claimed that clearance around turbines, coupled with improved technology, make prospects of fires slim. Earlier this year, a representative from Iberdrola (developer of Tule Wind) assured ECM that the odds of a modern wind turbine causing a fire that escapes to become a wildland fire were infinitessimal.
It only takes one wildfire to scorch hundreds of thousands of acres, putting homes and lives at risk, as San Diegans well know. Is that a risk worth taking, for the promise or renewable energy from wind?
When comparing the viability of wind to other options such as rooftop or parking lot solar, should the potential costs of firefighting--as well as potential liabilities for damages to property and lost lives--be factored into determining projects' long-term costs and benefits?
The BLM has already approved construction of 65 wind turbines in Phase 1 of Tule Wind on BLM land in McCain Valley. On August 8, the County Supervisors will consider whether to follow planners advice to turn down an application form Iberdrola for five more turbines on County land.
The bigger issue for Supervisors will be whether or not to approve an upcoming sweeping wind ordinance that could open wide the doors for large-scale wind turbine developments, each with dozens or even hundreds of towering wind turbines in fire-prone areas of East County.
In rural East County, 100-mile per hour gusts quickly transformed the Harris Fire into a raging inferno during the 2007 firestorms--a nightmarish repeat of the 2003 Cedar Fire. Dubbed the Santa Anas (or "devil winds") by the Spanish, the winds are common in East County during the hottest, dryest season. Thus it is prudent for County officials to give serious thought to potentially serious consequences should a turbine malfunction in a remote location.
Homeowners near the View Fire were fortunate that a witness spotted the fire and reported it promptly, before homes or lives were lost.
What happens if a turbine fire occurs in a remote East County location in the middle of the night? Will flames engulf homes, or in the case of Tule Wind, campsites in the path of the fire? Could the County be held liable if wind turbines that it approves cause a devastating wildfire?
These are troubling questions that deserve satisfactory answers.