A live experience at a South Australian wind farm taught the operator, landholder and system owner the importance of coordinated response to a natural hazard, writes Clean Energy Council director of energy transformation Tom Butler.

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, there really is no better way to test out an emergency management plan than dealing with a real incident.

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 uphill towards the Waterloo ridge line.

Within minutes of getting the Country Fire Service alert of the grass fire at Waterloo, the landholder – also the regional CFS Group Officer – called the Waterloo Wind Farm operations manager. The landholder was also part of the responding Country Fire Service and told the wind farm operations manager 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 fire service quick access to respond and manage the incident.

Action stations

At 2.02pm, the wind farm operations manager 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 and by 2.17pm asset operations paused 18 turbines.

Parallel to the growing ground and air response, the wind farm operations manager 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’s advance with multiple runs of water bombing and ground-based firefighting. 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 3.15pm, the fire crew 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.

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

The wind farm’s access tracks worked as a fire break. Without these the fire service 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 6pm the Country Fire Service group officer advised the wind farm operations manager it was OK to re-start the turbines located outside of the fire ground area. Overnight, 13 fire service units remained onsite and by 11am 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 hectares before it was deemed contained by 2.45pm the following day.

Learning from live fire

The Waterloo fire incident has given the wind industry, asset managers Palisade Asset Management and the South Australia Country Fire Service 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 operations (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, and;
  • water storage point signage, access track markings and site mapping.

The South Australia Country Fire Service is sharing the important things that have been learned from this incident with its peers and is working 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.

Images courtesy of Vestas and Palisade Asset Management