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Community Affairs References Committee
Social and economic impact of rural wind farms

CHAIR —We will resume the public hearing. Welcome, Mr Conway. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you.

Mr Conway —It has.

CHAIR —Thank you. Do you have any comment to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Conway —I am representing the chief officer, Mr Euan Ferguson, today.

CHAIR —Thank you. We have your submission, which is numbered 564. I would like to invite you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Mr Conway —Thank you, Madam Chair and Senators. Firstly, thank you for the opportunity to appear this morning. CFA has a charter and a statutory duty in relation to the prevention and suppression of fire in country area Victoria, and also a statutory duty to protect life and property. There are a number of instruments available to the authority and to the chief officer to enable us to do that, in particular regulation, provision of advice, provision of guidance, input into planning processes and also subsequent suppression of fire, should that be needed.

CFA is aware that there have been fires occur as the result of failure in wind turbines in the past. I wish to stress our understanding is that the likelihood of this is very low and that these occurrences are quite rare. However, with the increasing number of wind turbines being introduced into the landscape, CFA has an interest in order to fulfil its charter and its statutory duties.

We will be continuing to monitor the development of wind farms throughout Victoria and, where we can, we certainly will be having input into the planning processes for the approval of those wind farms. As we indicated in the submission from the chief officer, we have in place a set of guidelines for wind farms at the present time. I do have copies of those available for the committee members, Madam Chair. Those guidelines are currently under review. Their focus, when they were prepared in 2007, very much relates to the management of the landscape and the design of the layout to enable firefighting equipment to gain access to the wind farm and to suppress any fires that may be burning in the vicinity of a wind farm. The view of the chief officer is that there is scope, based on further research that needs to be done, to have further guidance in relation to the operations of the turbines themselves. That was the point that was made by the chief officer in his submission.

The other point that we would like to flag is that there is scope for further involvement of fire services, particularly our own organisation, in the planning processes for wind farms. At the present time, unless the site is impacted by a wildfire management overlay, CFA is not engaged in the planning process. We believe that there are circumstances where it would be appropriate for us to be involved, even though a wildfire management overlay does not exist.

They are the key points that were made by the chief officer in his submission and they are the points that I wanted to reiterate for committee members today. I am certainly happy to take any questions that the senators may have.

CHAIR —Thank you. Senator Fielding?

Senator FIELDING —Thanks, Chair. Some of the questions that came up yesterday related to whether it impedes the fire authorities in some way in getting into the area or fighting a fire if there are turbines and maybe aerial requirements for getting into an area, Is it something you have considered? I do not think it was in your submission about getting in to fires; it was more about whether wind turbines have a risk of catching fire and then creating a fire. Some of the evidence we heard yesterday was about accessibility—getting into an area because wind turbines may limit the area for fighting fires.

Mr Conway —I will take that in two parts. The first point, as to what is the likelihood of a turbine generating a fire in the landscape, our view is that the likelihood is very low but it does exist. The issue in relation to access for firefighting personnel and equipment if there is a fire burning in the vicinity of a wind farm is the key point addressed in the existing guidelines. Our organisation makes observations in relation to access tracks, provision of water supplies for firefighting, and it also identifies issues in relation to aerial firefighting, which is probably the key point.

Pilots operating aerial firefighting equipment are acutely aware of hazards of their occupation. Whether it be wind turbines and rotors, whether it be high-voltage transmission lines, whether it be trees or any other issue in the landscape; they are well aware of it and they are well versed in it. The current guidelines, as we understand it, allow for about a 300-metre spacing between installations for firefighting aircraft, particularly rotary winged firefighting aircraft. That is fine and we do not have any concerns in relation to that. We are quite confident that the pilots and the people on the ground managing the aerial firefighting capacity have that awareness and are able to manage it.

CHAIR —Senator Adams?

Senator ADAMS —Just another issue to carry on from that, we had evidence yesterday about concerns with the raised bed areas—I think it was probably more down in the southern area of the state—and how to deal with that problem. Could you help us there?

Mr Conway —I am not sure that I am familiar with the raised bed issue that you are identifying.

Senator ADAMS —I gather it is something to do with the way that the lava flows have come and the terrain is quite difficult to get into. The firefighters have been told, ‘If there’s a fire in there, just don’t go,’ because of the proximity of how the fire can come across, and the access.

Mr Conway —I understand your point. The issue with firefighting in that country, particularly where there have been lava flows and what we generally refer to as the stony rises, has been an issue that firefighters in Victoria have been dealing with since European settlement. It is incredibly complex and we do have to develop unique firefighting tactics and strategies for that area. That would be regardless of any other pieces of equipment in the landscape. I would not suggest that wind farms would have any additional adverse impact on that. The complexities of firefighting in that environment are well understood by the people who work there and have been dealt with over many years. The strategic and tactical approaches we have are well established.

Senator ADAMS —Okay. Thank you.

Senator MOORE —Mr Conway, following on from Senator Adams, we had a number of statements yesterday from people raising issues around fire and issues about their terrain and so on. If we got that evidence and gave it to your organisation, would you be able to give us a comment back?

Mr Conway —Absolutely.

Senator MOORE —Certainly the lava bed one was raised quite passionately, and people did not seem to have the same information that you gave Senator Fielding about aerial firefighting either. As they were raised publicly, it would be very useful to have them specifically responded to. Would you be able to do that for us?

Mr Conway —Yes. If you could refer those to the chief officer in the first instance, we will address those.

Senator MOORE —Thank you very much.

CHAIR —Senator Boyce?

Senator BOYCE —You talked about wildfire management overlays and not being involved in planning for wind farms where this might be the case. Could you explain to us what would be different if you were?

Mr Conway —The wildfire management overlays are a tool used by CFA to identify where there is a heightened risk of bushfire—firstly if it is starting and also the consequence of a fire occurring in areas. It is driven predominantly by the vegetation cover on the land. The state of Victoria is not covered entirely by wildfire management overlays because of the variation in vegetation cover. Open grasslands are less likely to see wildfire management overlays in place.

Senator BOYCE —It is almost a risk assessment tool, basically, is it?

Mr Conway —Very much so. The wildfire management overlay is one of the triggers that engage CFA in the planning process for any new development, whether it be a subdivision or industrial development within the landscape. Where a number of wind farms are being developed, the vegetation cover does not warrant a wildfire management overlay. Consequently, there is not a trigger to involve CFA in the planning process for this particular type of development, where that is the case. The view of the chief officer and the organisation is that there would be benefit, both to the community and to our organisation, in fulfilling our charter if we were involved in the planning process at an early stage.

Senator BOYCE —You would be aware that planning on wind farms is to be given to councils rather than at the state level. Does that make CFA’s job any more difficult?

Mr Conway —No. We have well-established processes for working with municipal councils in relation to planning processes. The success of our involvement with municipalities varies from one municipality to the next, as is the case in any circumstance. Certainly, there is no concern on the part of our organisation that the planning approvals process may move from state to local government. We are able to work quite effectively in both arenas.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you.

CHAIR —I have several questions. I want to go back to the issue of being involved in the early stages of planning. I have to say that planning has come up repeatedly during this inquiry. Would you suggest that the guidelines be modified so that CFA is engaged in the early stages of planning?

Mr Conway —We would see great merit in being involved in the early stages of planning, yes.

CHAIR —The other issue I wanted to go back to is the issue of low risk. Are there examples of where a turbine has started a fire?

Mr Conway —There are, but they are very few. I made that point at the commencement of my evidence. Very little statistical evidence has been gathered either nationally or in Victoria in relation to the number of instances where a turbine failure has been the cause of a fire. There is still work being done by our agency in looking at the data we have available to make a judgement in relation to that. At the present time neither the chief nor the organisation are aware of any specific study to identify statistical instances where turbines have been a cause of a fire.

CHAIR —You have said it is very low risk. Where would you rate it compared to other agricultural activity?

Mr Conway —A difficult call, Madam Chair. I am not sure I am in a position to do that. Certainly, it would be lower than some of the more intensive agricultural activities that occur. We are well established in our understanding of the impact, for example, of harvesting in cereal crops. The main reason is that harvesting happens at the most vulnerable time of the year, where the fuels are fully cured and we are in the hottest and driest part of the year. In making a comparison between those two, it is certainly far less. But it is hard, given the early stages of the research that we are involved in at the moment, to make a qualitative judgement on that.

CHAIR —In terms of bushfire management, I am aware that when there is high wind, high heat days, there are vehicle movement bans et cetera. With a wind farm obviously you are still going to have them operating. Have you looked at how you would deal with that particular issue? You have put bans on other things in agricultural areas—I have lived in the bush; I know what happens on high wildfire risk days. What have you put in the guidelines or how do you deal with that specific issue?

Mr Conway —At the moment there is nothing in our guidelines that looks at either the operation or the maintenance of the turbines. It is all focused on access, egress and dealing with the fire that may have occurred already. The chief officer is certainly very interested in looking at the operating parameters of turbines to determine whether or not it is appropriate to establish some sort of regulatory control over their operation. At the moment we have not formed any view. We want to do further research about the impacts of ambient temperature on the performance of the turbines themselves and also wind speeds.

At the present time, we have information to indicate that a number of the turbines being used are paused if wind speed exceeds 90 kilometres per hour. We are aware of that. We need to know a lot more than we do at the present time before we are in a position to pursue a regulatory regime, but it is certainly something we want to research and investigate. We will have further discussions with both the state and the industry in relation to that.

CHAIR —Can I go back to the issue of the restriction on being able to use rotary aircraft in a potential bushfire. That was raised extensively yesterday. I must say your evidence is very different from what was said yesterday. I want to check that a bit further, in terms of your experience to date being that there have been no problems in being able to use that type of aircraft near towers. Do you not see that as a problem? Because there was such a strong point made yesterday, I want to be really clear.

Mr Conway —I am happy to clarify. Using a rotary winged aircraft in close vicinity of wind turbines is not a good idea. The pilots simply will not do it. However, I want to put that in context. Wind turbines are not the only obstacles to the operation of either fixed or rotary winged aircraft in the landscape. When we are using that sort of resource for fire suppression, we make very certain of the safety parameters. There are certainly options available to the pilots and the people managing the firefight on the ground to ensure that aircraft are kept safe if there is a fire in the vicinity of wind farms. The observation we would make is that the distance between installations at the moment does give us scope to operate those aircraft, to a degree. But in the same way that any other obstacles in the landscape would give a pilot or a fire manager cause for thought about how they deploy those aircraft and how they apply them tactically, the installation of wind turbines would be one more consideration.

CHAIR —So if I understand it correctly, it is another risk that you manage.

Mr Conway —Absolutely.

CHAIR —Thank you. That is the end of my questions. Senator Fielding has some more.

Senator FIELDING —Are you aware of the fire in the Cathedral Rocks in around February 2009 where there were some spot fires caused when a wind turbine caught fire?

Mr Conway —I am not familiar with the particular incident, Senator, but I am certainly happy to examine it and provide observations in relation to the detail.

Senator FIELDING —And at Lake Bonney on 22 January 2006, at Starfish Hill, there were some other fires from the turbines.

Mr Conway —No, I have not got specific details of those incidents. As I said, I am happy to offer comment on them if we are provided with detail.

Senator FIELDING —Were there any concerns about getting in close to those and controlling the spot fires—certainly the one in Cathedral Rocks?

Mr Conway —Certainly no more than with any of the other issues in relation to the tactical suppression of a fire in those particular environments. The geography of that particular area is quite challenging, regardless of the nature of other installations that might be there.

Senator ADAMS —On the actual planning of proposed wind farms, are you involved with that at all? When a wind farm is being proposed at any stage, do the proponents call the fire authority in just to discuss the issue with them—the fact that they are going to build it and how it can be dealt with?

Mr Conway —As I indicated before, if the area that is being proposed as a site for a wind farm is affected by a wildfire management overlay, we are involved as a referral authority, and we do get involved in the planning process. If there is not a wildfire management overlay in place then it is very much at the discretion of the proponents as to whether or not they consult with us. On occasions we have been consulted; on other occasions we have not.

CHAIR —It goes back to the issue of being involved early in the planning stage.

Mr Conway —Exactly.

CHAIR —There being no further questions, thank you very much for your attendance today. We have given you some homework. If you could get that back to us within a couple of weeks, that would be appreciated.

Mr Conway —No problem at all. We will work with Sophie to get that organised.

[12.14 pm]