If you’re not familiar with the Pinnacle wind facility, it’s located along the Allegheny Front in Mineral County West Virginia. The road to the summit of Green Mountain, where the turbines are located, might best be described as a combined hill-climb and Grand Prix racing course. Fun for an old MG … not so much for a fire truck.
Some of us were more than a little worried that one or more of the turbines in this seriously isolated location might burst into flames and the falling debris might cause the fire to spread throughout the forest before the firetrucks had any chance of getting to the scene. We were concerned that hundreds of acres could well go up in flames pretty quickly if the conditions were right. We all know that wind is the best friend of wildfires and, well, wind is the reason they put the turbines up there in the first place, isn’t it? The thought of homes destroyed and folks caught in the flames is pretty scary.
Imagine my surprise when I read that, at a recent citizen’s meeting, Joe Bocian, project manager for the wind project, set to open prior to December 31, 2011, calmed the crowd with this advice: Concerning fires that might occur in the turbines, Bocian said from his own experience, “Just let them burn and they will eventually burn out.”
Now there’s a plan … just let them burn. Why didn’t I think of that!!!
Hmmm … smoky pieces flying through the air. What could possibly go wrong?
Unlike this video, the turbines at Pinnacle are not located on a level field next to the highway. They’re on top of the mountain, surrounded by forest vegetation. I don’t know about you, but the fact that the fire is some 300 feet up and the burning object is spinning doesn’t give me a real comfort about containment. So, is letting them burn a really good idea? Or is letting them burn until they burn out simply the only choice available?
Let’s see what Fire Engineering has to say about fires at wind turbines? (bold emphasis mine)
Fires can occur in distinct locations and heights and may involve various fuels and ignition sources. The wind tower’s primary objective is to produce electricity. Hence, a number of possible ignition sources exist from ground level and in more than a few wind farms, from underground levels up to more than 300 feet above ground.
Fuels can include electrical cables, plastics, and even textiles, any and all of which can also be found at all heights. Since the construction materials used in these towers and their components will invariably include plastics and possibly some combustible metals (e.g., titanium and aluminum, among others), as well as relatively easily deformable metallic structural and enclosure materials, the consequences of a fire in a wind turbine can be disastrous.
Also, a fire in a turbine assembly can propagate to surrounding vegetation and produce a wildland fire risk, and a fire involving surrounding vegetation could pose a threat to the wind farm. (not to mention homes in the area)
The origins of fires in wind generators are numerous and in some instances almost inevitable. Statistics show that the major cause of fires in aerogenerators is lightning. Although aerogenerators include lightning arresters and other elements to reduce the potential of ignition from lightning strikes, they do not completely eliminate possible lightning damage.
Another frequent cause of fires is the mechanical friction among the multiple moving parts of the turbine assembly, gears, shafts, and other moving or rotating metal components that may provoke sparking. Since the average wind turbine may contain more than 200 gallons of hydraulic fluid plus variable quantities of other lubricants and similar combustible liquids, there’s no shortage of fuel.
Electrical short circuits can occur in numerous locations, anywhere from the windmill’s top to the base. Fires in wind turbines are known to contribute to structural failure and collapse.
The major inconvenience at wind farms in regard to possible fires is that most of these installations are unattended. The operating companies have technicians available within reasonable distances, but they are not usually present, except during periodic inspections or maintenance operations. Fire protection at wind farms and inside the aerogenerators depends entirely on automatic fire detection and extinguishment systems, with reliable and constant supervision at one or more fixed locations. Detection is usually multidisciplinary, including early detection—fast response systems coupled with self-contained automatic extinguishing systems such as water mist or inert gases. The detection systems, usually networked and requiring detection/confirmation of a fire, instantaneously communicate the alarm to the supervision station and simultaneously activate the extinguishing system. The supervision of the detection and extinguishing systems must be full-time and be able to clearly and concisely communicate complete information to responsible emergency responding agencies.
Responding fire departments may normally be several miles away and have to travel over roads that quite often require all-wheel-drive vehicles. The primary limiting factors to fire department intervention are the height of the fire and the extremely limited vertical access inside the tower. A fire actively fought, controlled, and extinguished by fire department personnel would be a rare event. The general rule established in SOPs is not to attempt to physically attack a fire inside the tower and generator assembly but instead to rely on the fixed installations. At the same time, it would be necessary to establish an exterior defensive attack to protect exposed structures and vegetation near the affected tower.
It is absolutely imperative that emergency responders interact with the wind turbine operators to create, implement, and maintain preemergency response planning. Responders should go to the site to familiarize themselves with the facilities and develop simulation emergency exercises with the operators.
(Oh, by the way …) Human injury rescue operations are another matter. Emergencies involving physical injury to operational and maintenance personnel occasionally present in and around the wind generators (mainly falls and similar accidents) and will inevitably require high-angle rescue techniques and tactics, since an injured operator may be more than 300 feet above ground and inside very tight confined spaces that have extremely limited access.
(Fire Engineering piece ends)
Seems the Fire Engineering folks think communities should have a plan beyond “just let them burn and they will eventually burn out.” Maybe we do, and I simply haven’t seen anything published. The article didn’t really say much beyond the statement that “an access for emergency vehicles would be available.”
One would hope, at a minimum, these turbines are equipped with an internal automatic fire suppression system. Maybe even a warning system directly connected to the regional fire jurisdictions to gain all possible time for mobilization to protect the surrounding area. One would assume that arrangements are in place for bringing in specialized crews trained to fight forest fires which start as a result of fiery debris falling outside the reach and, perhaps, expertise of the local firefighters.
Oh, I need to stop being such a worry wart. Surely the wind plant owners aren’t going to dump all this responsibility on our local firefighters with a simple “let it burn.” There has to be a lot more to the story.