Turbines would hinder firefighters in Sand Hills

By Blake Spurney

Several people voiced opposition against NextEra Energy’s proposal to erect wind turbines in Harvey County during a planning commission meeting last week.

Burrton Assistant Fire Chief Jim Redinger said erecting turbines in the Sand Hills would make fighting fires much more difficult, because helicopters and tankers wouldn’t be able to provide support to firefighters. He spoke on behalf of the Burrton and Halstead Fire Departments.

“I know what a hindrance those wind farms can be in highly volatile areas like our Sand Hills,” he later said. “It ends any kind of aircraft from coming in, including the National Guard.”

Redinger said the giant wind turbines also would have a negative impact on efforts to control invasive species like red cedars and blackberries. He said the state had a program in which aerial sprayings assist landowners. He said the blackberry thickets were taking over a lot of areas, which he said would be the ruination of pastureland if they weren’t brought under control. He said both types of foliage provided fuel to make range fires more severe.

“You can get 60-foot flames off those blackberry bushes,” he said.

Halstead Fire Chief Jim Vanschaick, who was unable to attend the planning commission meeting, said the blackberry bushes also made it difficult to fight fires with conventional vehicles. He said military vehicles were needed to drive through the thick entanglements. He compared it to trying to drive through a hedgerow. He said eight major fires had occurred in the Sand Hills since he joined the fire department in 2005.

Redinger, who has been with the Burrton Fire Department since 1974, spends his summers working on logistics for forest fires in the western United States. He said range fires were as big a problem decades ago in the western part of the county because grazing cattle kept the grass short. The taller grass and invasive species have made the fires more extreme. He also noted that more people were building homes in the Sand Hills. The Cottonwood Complex fire destroyed 35 homes in March in Reno County.

Redinger said he didn’t have concerns about turbines being erected in other parts of the county. He said fighting fires was a dangerous business during normal circumstances. He said wouldn’t be able to rely on air support if turbines were allowed because a pilot’s visibility would be limited by dense smoke. He said turbines standing 500 to 600 feet high would make it impossible.

Fiona Bagwell, with NextEra Energy, spoke about the advantages of wind energy, and she was joined by a lawyer representing the company. She said turbines wouldn’t affect the water supply over the Equus Beds because the concrete bases for them only were 10 to 12 feet deep. Another resident said his family could benefit from an increase in revenue generated by having turbines on its land.

Brian Stucky opened the public-comment session with a PowerPoiut presentation that addressed the county’s population density. His map depicted a limited area where turbines could be erected by outlining a 2,000-foot setback around residences and factoring in areas outside the floodplain. He said he asked planning commissioners how he could make a similar presentation to the Board of Harvey County Commissioners, which ultimately will make the final decision on whether turbines will be allowed in the county. He said he thought planning commissioners seemed interested in the points he was trying to make.

Planning Commissioner Chairman Justin Stucky asked for the county’s commercial renewable energy project regulations to be put on the planning commission’s agenda for its June 7 meeting.

Planning & Zoning Director Karen Rothe said the county’s building code required a 2,000-foot buffer between turbines and residences and also around each city. She said NextEra was looking to erect a wind farm of about 60 units and that Stucky’s map showed quite a few open spots where they could be possible. She also said the county’s regulations probably allowed turbines at the present.

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