On 17 January 2017, wind farm operator Infigen sparked a blaze that ripped across the southern Tablelands of NSW and destroyed 3,400 hectares (8,400 acres), hundreds of sheep and cattle, sheds and at least one home.
STT’s operatives in NSW have been on the scene, collecting photographs and speaking with local landowners about the cause and consequences of the blaze, which we detail below.
Bushfires in Australia are a feature of our hot, dry summers; an ever present and deadly threat to lives, limb and property. Every summer, nervous farming and rural communities fix their collective gaze on the horizon, looking for tell-tale signs of the smoke that heralds the mortal threat of a bushfire.
You cannot light, maintain or use a fire in the open, or to carry out any activity in the open that causes, or is likely to cause, a fire. No general purpose hot works such as using tractors, slashers and/or welding, grinding or gas cutting can be done in the open either, and this includes incinerators and barbecues which burn solid fuel, eg. wood or charcoal.
Farmers engaged in crop harvesting operations think twice about operating harvesters when the northerly winds pick up and sends temperatures into the 40s – the safety conscious leave their headers parked in the shed or the corner of the paddock and spend the day in front of the A/C enjoying the cricket on TV – ready to respond in a heartbeat to the call if a fire does break out. Better to miss a day’s reaping than set the country ablaze.
On 17 January, a total fire ban was in place in NSW, covering the area to the north, east and west of Canberra. It reached a top of 39C in the region, with wind gusts of about 50 km/h – what farmers will, in their usual understated manner, refer to as “a bad day”.
Wind turbines are just another ignition source that adds to the anxiety experienced in rural Australia on “bad days”, like 17 January 2017. In Australia, wind turbines have so far been responsible for at least four serious bushfires:
- Ten Mile Lagoon in Western Australia in the mid-1990s;
- Lake Bonney, Millicent (SA) in January 2006;
- Cathedral Rocks Wind Farm, Port Lincoln (SA) in February 2009; and
- Starfish Hill (SA) in November 2010 (see this link for more detail).
On what are known as “very bad days” (temperatures above 42C with howling northerlies) wind farm operators will not run their turbines for fear that they will overheat and spark a monstrous conflagration. No doubt, the thought of losing a $3 million turbine to self-immolation is a motivating factor, too – as in this Texan meltdown:
As noted above, on days declared a ‘total fire ban’, you cannot ‘carry out any activity in the open that causes, or is likely to cause, a fire. No general purpose hot works such as using tractors, slashers and/or welding, grinding or gas cutting can be done in the open either’.
Engaging in any such activity is risky business. Under the NSW Legislation there are substantial penalties “for a fire that escapes and damages or destroys life, property or the environment can attract much greater fines and gaol terms with maximums at $132,000 and/or 14 years gaol.” And, as the RFS website notes:
Civil law suits can also be brought against the person responsible for a fire by those seeking compensation for losses sustained.
Indeed they can, and in this case they most certainly will be pursued against Infigen, for all the losses sustained.
A neighbouring property owner who suffers losses caused by bushfire will claim on their own property insurance for the loss of crops, pasture, sheds, dwellings, vehicles, equipment and livestock. If that property owner did not cause the bushfire, their insurer will satisfy the claim. However, that insurer will seek to recover what it has paid out under their policy from whoever it was that was responsible for the bushfire that caused their customer’s losses: what’s called a “recovery action” – the insurer steps into the shoes of their insured and recovers what has been paid out under the policy from a negligent wrongdoer.
In this instance, with multiple claims from multiple property holders, all suffering very substantial losses, the amount sought to be recovered by insurers paying out on claims from neighbours will be in the tens of millions of dollars.
The terms of property insurance policies are one of the reasons why farmers refrain from harvesting crops on total fire ban days and generally avoid the kinds of activities in the open that cause, or are likely to cause, a bushfire.
If a property owner starts a fire on their property, and that fire escapes and causes losses to their neighbour, the property owner may still be covered under their insurance policy for the losses caused to their neighbour.
However, they will not be covered on a total fire ban day if the activity they have engaged in is an activity which is prohibited under state fire ban regulations.
In short, if a farmer is harvesting or welding or using an angle grinder outside on a total fire ban day and a bushfire starts, he will be personally liable for the financial losses caused to his neighbours, as his insurer will deny cover under a term that excludes operation of the policy in those circumstances.
Now, back to Infigen, its Capital wind farm and the Currandooley fire.
The fire broke out just before 10am on ‘Currandooley’, a property owned by the Osborne family and operated by Harry Osborne, where the Osbornes host 10, 2.1MW Suzlon S88 turbines, which are part of Infigen’s 67 turbine Capital wind farm, located to the north-east of Canberra.
Before the fire was controlled on Thursday it had destroyed a home, burnt out 3,400 hectares (8,400 acres), destroyed hundreds of sheep and cattle, sheds and farm equipment. This image from the Rural Fire Service (RFS), shows the extent of the fire on Wednesday afternoon.
The ignition point for the fire was located at the base of one of Infigen’s turbines at the Capital wind farm. Here’s a satellite image of the location of the turbines and the extent of the fire: the turbines are all situated within the red box and the black line depicts the path of the fire, running with the wind prevailing that day, west to east:
The RFS fire extent map above shows Lake George to the west, Tarago to the north and Mount Fairy to the South. The red boxed area is enlarged in the image below:
STT operatives from NSW went to the burnt out area and confirmed, as depicted in a series of photos below (taken looking south-west), that the ignition point is situated adjacent to a turbine at the Capital wind farm.
Note that turbines always face into the wind – here they are facing west (into the wind) and note the burnt out area to the east (selecting these images will allow you to see them in more detail).
On this occasion, we can’t pin the fire directly on a wind turbine. However, STT’s operatives have visited the site and obtained detailed statements from neighbours who are unequivocal.
The fire was started by maintenance workers employed or contracted by Infigen. Between 9am and 10am on 17 January, workers were engaged in the maintenance of the turbine depicted in the right foreground of the picture above.
A grass fire broke out just before 10am, and in the hot and blustery conditions, it didn’t take long to turn into a serious disaster and mortal threat.
As to the ignition source, local farmers believe that the workers were operating welding or grinding equipment at the time, although one suggestion was that their vehicle may have started it.
It would be unheard of for a wind farm contractor or employee to travel onto dry grassland in anything other than diesel powered vehicles, which, obvious defects aside, do not pose a fire risk.
Fires are often caused by the super-heated catalytic converters of modern petrol powered vehicles, so it would be wilful negligence to turn up on a wind farm site in a petrol powered vehicle during summer; and particularly so on a total fire ban day. Which leaves the operation of a grinder or welder as the most likely ignition source. In either event, Infigen will not be covered under its insurance policy (see above).
Whatever they did to spark the blaze, the workers responsible didn’t hang around; they quickly packed up shop and bolted.
True to form, Infigen, no doubt terrified of where the buck stops, started running media interference almost instantly.
Over at wind cult central, the ABC quickly ran a story (no doubt fed to them by Infigen) that a crow colliding with a high-voltage power line was the cause of the fire.
One of our NSW’s operatives, who is in regular contact with firefighters from the Rural Fire Service put that story to one of the RFS officers involved in fighting the fire. The response was gales of laughter. Not only is the idea that a crow can start a bushfire by whacking into a power line risible, the ignition point is pretty obvious (see above) and is nowhere near a powerline of any description.
Harry Osborne, in response to Infigen’s crow claim, reckoned it would more credible if they had tried to finger the blame on a pelican or a stork, something big enough to splatter itself across several lines and create an arc.
Infigen were not, apparently, content to leave it to their mates at the ABC to exculpate them.
After the fire died down, an entourage of Infigen’s senior managers turned up at a number of burnt out neighbouring properties in a deliberate attempt to deflect their liability.
The owner of one of these properties – who does not wish be named because he is obtaining legal advice – became furious with Infigen’s delegation as they attempted to whitewash the cause of the fire.
The farmer in question told Infigen’s boys that he “hoped they had bloody good insurance?”. They then claimed that the fire had nothing to do with Infigen and ran the crow story. He said, “if it was a crow and nothing to do with Infigen, then what the bloody hell are you doing here?”. One of Infigen’s boys responded that they were there “because Infigen are good corporate citizens”. To which the farmer responded that their crow story was a complete bloody joke and that Infigen better have bloody good insurance. He then ordered them off the property and they cut a hasty retreat, as all good corporate citizens tend to do.
Harry Osborne, the farmer whose family own Currandooley where the fire started made no bones about it, telling one of STT’s operatives that: “Infigen started it”.
In the massive civil claims against Infigen and in the criminal prosecutions that are bound to follow, no doubt, Harry will make a very reliable witness. Oh, and as for Infigen getting cover from its insurer to indemnify it from all those multi-million dollar civil claims, as the Americans say to the brave and foolhardy: ‘well, good luck with that!’