All wind farms are required to have detailed plans in place to deal with natural disasters and other emergencies. Yet while drills and scenarios help teams to prepare for the real thing, there really is no better way to test out an emergency management plan than dealing with a real incident.

By Tom Butler, Director of Energy Transformation, Clean Energy Council

No-one hopes to have to respond to a critical emergency incident during their working day. But in a land like ours where floods, fire and drought are familiar, there is a reasonable chance that any given site will be affected by an emergency at some point.

This was the case with Waterloo Wind Farm in South Australia’s Gilbert Valley region in January this year. In the middle of a day with high fire danger, an accidental spark from machinery operating in a neighbouring field caused a grass fire that was soon pushing up the hill towards the Waterloo ridge line.

 

Fire-pano

At 1.55 pm, quick thinking from the local landholder allowed them to reach the Country Fire Service and the wind farm operations crew. Within minutes of getting the CFS alert of the grass fire at Waterloo, the landholder – also the regional CFS Group Officer  – Andrew had called the Waterloo Wind Farm operations manager Hannah. Andrew, in parallel, was part of the responding CFS crew. When speaking with Hannah he advised that water bombers had been deployed and requested that a number of turbines be shut down. He also requested that, where safe to do so, all access gates on site be opened to enable the CFS quick access to respond and manage the incident.

At 2.02 pm, Hannah checked in with her ground crew to ensure everyone was safe or could get to safety as soon as possible, and implemented steps in the emergency plan as well as acting in response to local CFS requests.

  • The operations crew ensured access points were open for fire crews to enter without restrictions.
  • By 2.17 pm, asset operations paused 18 turbines.

Parallel to the growing ground and air response, Hannah had advised the Waterloo Wind Farm General Manager of the incident and got the all clear for decisions to be made as needed. These decisions included requesting that the turbines be paused and shut down remotely by applying their brakes.

For the next hour, ground and air crew worked to halt the fire advance with multiple runs of water bombing and ground-based fire fighting. Fixed-wing water bombers were expertly manoeuvred through the turbines to target the fast moving grass fire, and were followed by ground crew targets.

At 3.15 pm, Andrew deemed it safe enough for the onsite crew to attend six of the paused wind turbines, to apply the brakes and set the blades in ‘rabbit ear position’ and set their pitch at 88 degrees, further assisting aircraft to pass through the turbines to continue water bombing.

Fire-bomber

The response crew grew to 32 CFS and 25 private farmer fire unit vehicles, four fixed wing water bombers and a surveillance helicopter responding to the incident. In all, over 200 people were involved in responding to the fire.

The wind farm’s access tracks worked as a fire break. Without these the CFA believes the fire would have likely raced to the next ridge, and range, creating a much bigger incident. The turbine’s footings, with their clear line of site, were used by crews to coordinate air and ground crew actions.

Fire fighting continued through the afternoon and, by 6 pm, the CFS Group Officer advised Hannah it was OK to re-start the turbines located outside of the fire ground area. Overnight, 13 CFS units remained onsite and by 11 am the next day the rest of the wind farm was given the all clear to turn back on.

The fire burnt a total of 60 ha before it was deemed contained by 2.45 pm the following day.

Learning from live fire

Fire-landcape

The Waterloo Fire incident has given the wind industry, the asset managers, Palisade Asset Management, and the SA CFS direct, recent and real experience to test existing (accepted) practices, plans and protocols.

A number of lessons from the incident can be applied by the wind farm owner, and the industry as whole.  An important takeaway is the aerial-friendly identification and markings for meteorological (“met”) masts and guy wires at wind farm locations.

It is also important to review and update emergency management plans and protocols – particularly for fire events – with a focus on:

  • communications practices including advising state air-desk (who control aerial firefighting assets)
  • on site asset management/operations centre control procedures to pause, brake and ‘lock’ individual turbines
  • best practice approaches to support aerial and ground based responses
  • water storage point signage, access track markings and site mapping.

The South Australia CFS is proactively sharing the important things that have been learned from this incident with their peers and is working proactively with the wind industry to improve practices and approaches.

In a broader sense though, the experience confirmed the value of community engagement and relationships around the site.  It has also confirmed that ongoing, regular engagement with local volunteer organisations and service providers is key to keeping response plans in check and ensuring the needs – and safety – of the community are cared for at all times.

In case of fire: Communicate well, implement your emergency plan and support each other. 

*first names used

Please note: images supplied by Vestas and Palisade Asset Management

This opinion piece was originally published by ecogeneration.