MARK COLVIN: Concerns are being raised about the impact that wind turbines could have on fire fighting.
The group representing pilots who provide aerial support during bushfires says it wants the federal government to investigate whether turbulence from the structures could affect low-flying aircraft.
Natalie Whiting has the story.
NATALIE WHITING: During this year’s horror bushfire season, the importance of aerial resources for fighting blazes was clearly on display.
But in a small shire in south-western New South Wales, some people are worried a number of local wind farms could stop planes being used if a fire took off.
MALCOLM BARLOW: Pilots are loathe, understandably, to fly anywhere near wind turbines, especially in smoky conditions.
By and large pilots won’t go within even more than a kilometre of a wind turbine area when there’s a fire there.
NATALIE WHITING: Malcolm Barlow is a councillor in the upper Lachlan Shire. There are six wind farms already built or approved in the shire, and another five applications being processed.
He says proponents of wind farms should have to contribute to the costs of fire fighting.
MALCOLM BARLOW: They should make a contribution to the community in which they’re being placed, because they’ve placed that community in a greater risk of fire and in a decreased capacity to fight the fire.
Currently, our information is around about 40 per cent of fire fighting capacity is aerial and even higher in rugged areas where you can’t get the ground crews in.
NATALIE WHITING: The New South Wales Rural Fire Service disagrees with that figure.
Assistant commissioner Bruce McDonald says it’s more like 10 per cent, and emphasises that fire fighters on the ground are always the most important asset.
BRUCE MCDONALD: Our ground troops can access around wind turbines anyway. So there are generally maintenance tracks up to the turbines and those sorts of things.
There is general ground access and that’s our primary source of fire fighting.
NATALIE WHITING: He says wind farms are just one of the risks pilots face when fighting fires.
BRUCE MCDONALD: Aircraft are restricted by a number of things – wind farms is one of them, as are power transmission lines, TV towers, mountains, et cetera.
We’ve also got to recall that aircraft are operating in fairly smoky and windy conditions, so it’s a fairly dangerous occupation. They do have to be aware of the risks.
NATALIE WHITING: Mr McDonald says the RFS (Rural Fire Service) doesn’t have a policy on fighting blazes near wind farms.
BRUCE MCDONALD: Each fire is different, each fire is dynamic, and we determine the strategy based on the fire, which can be a difference in fuel or topography, terrain, et cetera.
NATALIE WHITING: That isn’t appeasing some landholders.
Humphrey Price-Jones is an anti-wind farm campaigner. His property in the upper Lachlan Shire borders a wind farm that’s currently under construction.
HUMPHREY PRICE-JONES: We feel very exposed. Significant tracks of this shire are vulnerable and it is of great concern to many landholders living in the vicinity of towers and proposed towers.
NATALIE WHITING: The Aerial Agricultural Association of Australia represents pilots who provide aerial support during bushfires.
The CEO, Phil Hurst, says the main concern is whether the turbines create a turbulence risk.
PHIL HURST: Well we know that wake turbulence is an issue and when you look at the safety regulations administered by CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority), there are wake turbulence separation regulations.
What we don’t know is whether that translates directly to wind turbines.
NATALIE WHITING: The association has written to the Federal Department of Infrastructure asking them to undertake more research.
PHIL HURST: Now we’re not doing it because we think we know the answer; we’re doing it because we don’t know the answer.
We do know that there was a recent report to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau from a pilot at low level who experienced severe turbulence and thought that it might have been linked to a wind turbine farm not far away – but again, we’re taking a very open view of this.
NATALIE WHITING: Mr Hurst says the group would like to be able to provide advice to pilots, but that’s not possible at the moment.
PHIL HURST: There are a lot of issues for a pilot to deal with and one of the things that we like to do is try and manage work load.
It would be really good if we had a little more confidence about the potential impact of wind farms on the fire ground situation.
MARK COLVIN: Phil Hurst, chief executive of the Aerial Agricultural Association of Australia, ending that report from Natalie Whiting.
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