Infigen Energy does not accept liability for what it describes as an “unusual event” on its Capital Wind Farm near Tarago.
However it is exploring fire mitigation and response measures in the wake of the Currandooley blaze, that destroyed thousands of hectares.
The Rural Fire Service has found and the company has acknowledged that a bird flew into a high-voltage powerline managed by the company. But its general manager, strategy and development, Richie Farrell says the company does not accept fault for the subsequent fire after the bird dropped into dry grass.
“It was an unusual event. We have had over 20 unplanned outages over four years prior to the recent event and we suspect bird strikes on powerlines were responsible for all of those. (But) it has caused only one fire over four years,” he said.
Infigen contends the bird and not the infrastructure caused the outbreak.
However Mr Farrell said the company was exploring “technical solutions” to power pole design. One is to lay gravel below the poles.
Asked why the company was doing this if it did not accept liability, Mr Farrell said it was “improving” processes.”
It was also about minimising risk of birds catching fire in the first place, the company’s manager of environmental, social, governance and investor relations, Marju Tonisson said.
Infigen’s workers also slashed grass beneath the power poles on the Saturday following the Tuesday, January 17 fire, on RFS advice. Locals said on that day, another bird that struck a wind farm power pole also caught fire and dropped to the ground but there was no fuel to burn.
In addition, Mr Farrell said Infigen was considering advice from the Taylors Creek RFS and landholders about fire mitigation. In future, the Brigade will be notified immediately of any unplanned outages to minimise fire risk.
He said the wind farm had a fire plan. Pressed on the details, Mr Farrell said it involved notifying the RFS.
Infigen donated $50,000 in emergency funds to the Bungendore Community Foundation after the blaze. It is also considering a donation to the Tarago Progress Association.
Mr Farrell said this was not an admission of liability, simply the “right thing to do” for those affected, in the same way that others had donated.
He told The Post that the company would fully cooperate with any inquiry deemed necessary.
“But there are only so many things you can do to mitigate against bird strikes,” he said.
The NSW RFS declined to comment on detailed questions posed by The Post.
“It would be inappropriate to provide any further comment as the matter is now part of an ongoing investigation,” a spokesman said.
”NSW RFS fire investigators have given their report to NSW Police and this is now part of an ongoing investigation.”
The report will only be released under the Government Information Public Access Act. But the community has called for more transparency.
There are only so many things you can do to mitigate against bird strikesRichie Farrell, Infigen Energy
NSW Local Land Services chairman Tim de Mestre was driving to Orange when he heard his 950ha family property on the Tarago to Bungendore Road was on fire.
“I came back to find the fire disappearing over the hill and crews mopping up,” he said.
His workers were there at the time. The ‘Merigan’ homestead, woolshed and two paddocks were saved thanks to them and RFS ground and aerial work.
But almost all of the 950ha, more than one-third of the total fire field, was burnt. The fire tore through a grand avenue of oak trees planted by his mother’s family 30 years ago, destroyed 4000 pines and 3000 natives planted as windbreaks, a large oat crop and 30km of fencing. Volunteers have been furiously watering the oak trees in an attempt to save them.
Mr de Mestre said there were minimal stock losses but almost all sheep were “impaired” and some cattle still missing.
“I’m shattered by it,” he told The Post.
“I had the pastures just the way I wanted...There was a power of grass for stock and now it’s all gone up in flames.”
Mr de Mestre was highly grateful for the RFS effort and generous donations from the community. Like everyone, he was also entitled to LLS fodder and livestock help.
But he also wants answers, like a growing chorus around Tarago and Mount Fairy.
“I do think Infigen needs to supply further information and for people to get access to the RFS investigation report,” he said.
Over the same day, on Mount Fairy Road, John Harvey noticed smoke rising over his property, ‘Top Cottage,’ where daughter Jo Harvey-Collings and her husband, Cameron Garnock lived.
“Then we saw it come down the road and then from the north and we feared it would come over the back of the house,” Mr Harvey said.
A water bomber staved off any threat to the house, while the RFS, a bulldozer, Mr Harvey, Mr Garnock and employee Lauchlan Joiner worked the ground.
Mr Harvey lost 100ha of his 450ha holding and considers himself lucky.
“I don’t see this as being about wind power per se, but if it was a bird (responsible), what’s to stop it happening again? I think they need to be very careful on high fire danger days and have a very good fire plan in place to address such occurrences,” he said.