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News / Northwest

Deer take refuge near wind turbines as fire scorches Washington state land

By GENE JOHNSON, Associated Press
Published: July 24, 2023, 4:09pm

SEATTLE — Bjorn Hedges drove around the two wind farms he manages the morning after a wildfire raced through. At many of the massive turbines he saw deer: does and fawns that had found refuge on gravel pads at the base of the towers, some of the only areas left untouched amid an expanse of blackened earth.

“That was their sanctuary — everything was burning around them,” Hedges said Monday, two days after he found the animals.

Crews continued fighting the Newell Road Fire by air and by ground in rural south-central Washington state, just north of the Columbia River, amid dry weather and high wind gusts. Over the weekend, fire threatened a solar farm along with a natural gas pipeline and a plant at a landfill that converts methane to energy.

Firefighters responded quickly and stopped the flames before damage was done to those facilities, said Allen Lebovitz, wildland fire liaison for the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Residents of an unknown number of homes, “maybe hundreds,” near the small community of Bickleton had been given notices to evacuate, Lebovitz said. Some residences burned, but crews had not been able to determine how many.

The wildfire, which was burning in tall grass, brush and timber, also threatened farms, livestock and crops. It had burned about 81 square miles (210 square kilometers).

The fire began Friday afternoon and quickly raced across the White Creek Wind and Harvest Wind projects, where Hedges works as plant manager. Together the farms have 132 turbines and supply enough power for about 57,000 homes.

The turbines typically shut down automatically when their sensors detect smoke, but that emergency stop is hard on the equipment, Hedges said, so workers pulled the turbines offline as the fire approached. They were back to mostly normal operations Monday, though the turbines likely needed their air filters replaced, he said.

“We’re probably safer now than we’ve ever been,” Hedges said. “There’s no fuel remaining. It scorched everything.”