Evaluating Wind Farm Fire Protection Requirements

A comprehensive fire risk assessment for a wind farm can identify risk factors so “tool-kit” fire protection measures can be developed to mitigate risks.

Potential Challenges

The list of fire protection challenges for wind farms can be daunting:

High winds, native vegetation (fuels), ignition source (nacelle) elevated up to 400 feet, rural location and longer emergency response times, ill-equipped firefighting agencies with volunteer firefighters, fast fire spread rate, existing structures – often of older, more ignition-vulnerable construction — and lack of defensible space.

Wind farms present a unique challenge to the responding firefighting agencies. In essence, a fire in a wind turbine nacelle that is up to 400 feet above the ground would require “high-rise” or “sky-scraper” fire response expertise and equipment within an electrically charged facility from primarily rural firefighting agencies.

These agencies, while capable and dedicated, are typically geared toward medical emergencies, wildfire response and residential structural protection. In addition to the wind structure fire risk, a burning nacelle or turbine blade may create molten slag and burning embers that may be carried for great distances by high winds, resulting in spot fires, difficult containment, and existing structure (residences) threat, especially given the windy sites required for wind farms.

Potential Solutions

While wind farm fire protection can be challenging, a number of steps can be taken to mitigate risk

  • Fund local fire agencies for training and equipment necessary to respond to wind farm fires
  • Address defensible space issues for existing structures
  • Develop strategic fuel modification around each turbine and at advantageous locations as fuel breaks
  • Equip turbines with automatic fire suppression systems and/or use non-flammable materials
  • Provide an on-site fire manager during construction periods and during Red Flag Warning weather
  • Prepare a community emergency evacuation plan with community input
  • Identify and “harden” a community structure that can serve as an emergency wildfire shelter or construct a new community shelter.

Not all wind farms should be considered to represent significant risk of wildfires. For example, wind farms in sparse desert areas are not likely to result in large wildfires due to a lack of consistent fuels. Wind farms in these areas should not require as many site-specific fire protection measures as a facility in a more flammable fire environment. However, wind farms planned for areas with fuels that would facilitate vegetation ignition and spread should include measures that are designed to respond directly to the associated risk.

A comprehensive fire risk assessment must be conducted for that considers the weather, terrain, fuels, fire history, emergency access, fire agency capabilities, similar projects in the area (cumulative affect), potentially affected existing structures/persons, and any project-specific construction or operation processes that may present ignition sources.

Once the fire risk is identified and documented, then the potential “tool-kit” of fire protection measures can be formulated. Each measure that is selected must correspond to an identified risk factor and mitigate, either by itself or when coupled with other measures, the risk. The final number of measures in the tool-kit can vary from a few to numerous, but should be directly related to the site’s fire risk.