Birds electrocuted by a power transmission line at a wind farm near Canberra in January sparked two bushfires — one of which burned 3400ha and caused millions of dollars of damage in lost livestock and property.
The fires near Tarago, east of Canberra, were started at different spots on a transmission line taking power from 23 turbines on the Woodlawn wind farm to its substation. The wind farm, power line and substation are owned and operated by Infigen Energy.
A NSW Rural Fire Service incident report found the later blaze, or Currandooley fire, was sparked on January 17 by a bird in contact with “high-voltage powerlines, igniting and landing in dry grass”. The scorched carcass was found under the Woodlawn wind farm transmission line on an aggregation of a property known as Currandooley.
The Currandooley fire is a hot-button issue on the NSW Southern Tablelands, where the wind industry has a heavy footprint and is perceived by many locals as operating with a “God complex”. Infigen also runs the larger, 67-turbine Capital wind farm adjacent to Woodlawn. Residents allege the company operates with a culture of evasion and denial.
Tim de Mestre, whose family has been on Merigan Station, near Bungendore for 50 years, said the property was destroyed in less than an hour. Of Merigan’s 950ha, 880ha were burnt.
Walter MacCallum, from Aitken Lawyers, representing Mr de Mestre in the wake of the fire, said the fact there had been two incidents in a month involving the wind farm’s infrastructure meant Infigen needed “to inform those affected by the fire what happened and how it occurred”.
State and federal politicians are hearing rumblings of community disquiet around this confluence of wind farms and bushfires. Angus Taylor, the Liberal federal member for Hume, said: “It’s that classic thing you are seeing out in the regions at the moment, where people feel they are getting dumped on.
“It is absolutely incumbent on Infigen to take an objective and reasonable approach to their potential responsibility for the fire.”
Pru Goward, state member for Goulburn and a frontbencher in the Berejiklian government, has asked NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman to consider a coronial inquiry into the fire.
“We need to understand why a bird touching a transmission line should spark a fire of this size,” she said, adding there was concern from landowners about a “history” of small blazes under Infigen’s transmission line and obligations such as fuel-load reduction and land management needed to be considered to mitigate risk.
RFS firefighters say the Currandooley fire was intense, fast and hot, the worst in the region since the 2003 Canberra bushfires. The damage bill will be in the millions of dollars and the Queanbeyan coroner has forwarded the final RFS and police report into the blaze to the NSW coroner.
The blaze followed a fire on January 4 that burnt 20ha at a property near Currandooley, known as Pylara. This fire started after a crow was electrocuted and fell to the ground from the same Woodlawn overhead power line.
On January 23, residents were shown the ignition point of the Currandooley blaze by wind farm site manager Michael Jordan and the site’s operations manager. The incinerated crow that sparked the blaze was still there under pole 25 of the 33kv transmission line. The carcass of a second bird lay under the same pole. Wind farm employees said the second bird was killed by the electrical infrastructure on January 21. The death of the second bird did not cause a fire as there was no fuel load — the ground had already burnt four days before.
Discussing the Currandooley wildfire with the local press, NSW RFS deputy incident manager Andrew Gray described the bird sparking the Currandooley fire as a “fluke” exacerbated by high temperatures, dry ground fuel and strong winds.
Infigen said last week bird strike could result in a fault, tripping the powerline: “This would electrocute the bird, possibly causing a burn, but would not normally result in the incineration of a bird. Whilst it is not uncommon for bird strikes to occur on powerlines, bird strikes causing fires are rare.
“In light of recent events, we have been reviewing our procedures in an attempt to reduce the chance of a bird strike causing a fire again. We have conducted environmental improvements including laying gravel around the base of power poles and slashing/spraying long grass. Once we have received the final investigation report from the RFS we will consider whether any further amendments to our procedures would be appropriate.”