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The forest was tinder dry. With no rain in weeks, the parched grass in the undergrowth had turned to straw, prompting fire bans across northeastern Ontario.
Yet heavy construction in the bush pressed on last summer at the site of the province’s largest wind energy development.
CBC News has learned there were at least three construction-related fires at the Henvey Inlet Wind (HIW) project in the weeks leading up to Parry Sound 33, the massive wildfire that torched thousands of hectares of wilderness along the northeastern shore of Georgian Bay — a destructive path that started at the construction site on July 18.
The three previous fires were reported to the province at the time. In one case, officials even had to dispatch water bombers to help bring the fire under control.
But a heavy truck operator who worked at HIW tells CBC News there were many more small fires during the same period prior to Parry Sound 33.
Wayne Hollis says the little fires were quickly contained, but ought to have been a clear sign that construction work should have been halted, or at least minimized, to protect the parched forest.
He says the companies behind HIW took “unnecessary risks” to keep the work going.
“This could have been avoided,” said Hollis, who believes he was laid off for sharing similar information about the fires on social media.
“The weather was really, really dry. Things were very volatile on the ground.”
The wind farm was already months behind schedule, as crews cleared roads and prepared foundations for 87 turbines. Only a handful of the large windmill towers were up last July.
The project is a partnership between the Henvey Inlet First Nation and U.S.-based Pattern Energy Group LP. They need to have the entire wind farm operational by next spring or risk losing their contract to supply wind power to Ontario’s electricity grid.
Provincial officials have been interviewing workers, including Hollis, as part of their investigation into the cause of Parry Sound 33. Their findings are expected to be released by next summer.
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