Wind Turbines and Wildfire: Experts Weigh in on a Burning Issue

As an experienced fire pilot will tell you, flying around or through obstacles is often part of the job.

“For the most part missing wind turbines, missing power lines, missing mountains – it’s all the same. It’s just an obstacle we have to avoid,” said Jesse Weaver, chief pilot for a company that operates Fire Boss aircraft. Weaver has spent his career coordinating firefighting operations and fighting fires nationally and internationally.

With proposed wind projects on the horizon comes both an increase in challenges for firefighting and opportunities for better fire management on federal lands.

The Lava Ridge Wind Project, proposed by Magic Valley Energy in Lincoln, Jerome, and Minidoka counties, has submitted an application for up to 400 wind turbines set up in strings of turbines throughout 140,000 acres. Only one percent of the land, about 1,800 acres, will be occupied by project infrastructure during operations. The land will continue to be open for recreational use and ranching operations.

The area is dominated by non-native vegetation altered by past land use and previously disturbed habitats. The most significant disturbance is from natural and manmade fires that can quickly sweep through the remote, dry areas laden with cheatgrass and lacking in close water sources and firebreaks.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, since 2012, there have been 32 fires within the Lava Ridge project area. Sixteen fires burned fewer than 100 acres, and 23 burned fewer than 500 acres.

Using both aerial attack and on-the-ground methods of fire suppression, the Twin Falls District Fire Management Program works closely with the 38 city and rural fire departments, four Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (RFPAs), and Western rural fire departments contracted by the Idaho Department of Lands to effectively combat area fires.

A Changing Landscape Means More Communication

“We want fire as part of the ecosystem. It’s a good tool for renewing the vegetation and supporting the habitat needed by the sage grouse, but it’s all about the management of fire. It needs to be kept manageable in size and mosaic,” said Michael Guerry, chairman of the Three Creek Rangeland Fire Protection Association. “This country was developed with fire, and we got scared of it. We’ve allowed fuel loads to build so that now when we have a fire, they tend to be major events, and that’s why things like compartmentalizing, improving assets and communications, and partnership become extremely important. I always say it’s about the partnership. It’s about the partnership. And ultimately, it’s about the partnership because it truly is,” he said. “We aren’t a tremendous asset solely by ourselves. We are a good asset. But we’re a better asset in partnership with the BLM, with the leadership and training they’ll provide us and how we work our equipment together.”

The Challenges: Fire Pilots Weigh In

While flying close to a large turbine may worry a novice or non-pilot, fire pilots say wind turbines are just another artificial hazard.

“There are many natural and manmade hazards out there that we’re always looking for,” said fire pilot Jason Robinson. “Power lines are challenging to see. But wind turbines are pretty obvious. It just depends on how tightly concentrated they are and also the path at which we’re flying. We have to make sure that we have a clear approach and exit.”

While pilots are used to flying in tight spaces when need be, both Robinson, Weaver, and other expert pilots who lead aerial fire training and attacks said there are a few things developers can do to make sure fire crews are safe and the fire is controlled early. Including enough spacing between strings of turbines and a way to turn off the equipment in the event of a fire to minimize additional drafts of air are helpful during the pre-planning of a project.

The Lava Ridge wind turbine corridor spacing ranges from roughly a mile to a half-mile between strings of turbines which pilots say allows plenty of room for airplanes to maneuver in the event of a fire. However, pilots must determine visibility factors depending on smoke plumes and weather conditions.

“As a pilot, you have an idea of the capability of your aircraft and depending on your risk, tolerance, skill, and feeling of the day with the windows and weather conditions,” said Robinson. “We can operate in pretty tight spaces, so if you have at least a quarter-mile spacing between rows, that seems like it’d be more than adequate to me.”

But beyond aerial flame retardant and water drops, on-the-ground suppression efforts are just as critical to taming quick-moving flames.

The Benefits: Fire Breaks and Water Sources

With the advancement of technology and proper maintenance, a wind turbine as the source of a fire is extremely rare. And since wind turbines are a significant investment for developers, preventing fires from damaging the equipment or surrounding areas is a top priority.

Magic Valley Energy’s plan of development proposes water storage tanks and water lines to provide additional water access points for rangeland fire trucks or helicopter dip tanks.

MVE will also acquire and store a rangeland fire engine and other rangeland fire equipment at the operation facilities that will be available for use by the MVE employees, the BLM, RFPAs, or other applicable fire response groups. On-site MVE staff will be trained to respond to fires within the Lava Ridge area utilizing the fire engine and equipment.

Since communication and partnership are critical to any fire management program, the staff will be trained on standard practices and communication methods to coordinate efficiently between the BLM and any other applicable fire response groups.

Another benefit to bringing a wind project to a large desert area beyond the additional access to water is the added fire breaks thanks to the new access roads. The roads will allow for a natural fire break in the landscape while making access easier for fire crews.

“There are lots of ways to be part of the partnership. Water is extremely important, and the development of water not only helps us on the firefighting side but also helps the livestock operators so they can better disperse their livestock. Water development is always a win-win,” said Guerry, who chairs the Three Creek RFPA and owns a third-generation sheep and cattle ranch in Castleford. “Improved roads make quicker access, and keeping fires down in size is all about getting out there and catching them quickly. The better the roads, the less wear and tear on the equipment.”