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‘This could have been avoided’: Wind farm work sparked blazes before Parry Sound 33 wildfire

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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.”

Watch: Former HIW worker Wayne Hollis​ describes how the fires started.

Wayne Hollis says small fires would regularly spark up at the wind farm construction site. 1:12

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.

But CBC News has learned several new details about the province’s investigation, including that forensic investigators have seized a crew’s Argo all-terrain vehicle that caught fire at the very spot Parry Sound 33 is believed to have ignited.

CBC has also obtained exclusive footage that shows how explosives were used at the wind farm site earlier in the season. The footage was reviewed by three independent experts, each of whom raised safety concerns.

The companies involved insist they were following strict protocols under Ontario’s Forest Fires Prevention Act, and that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) never issued any orders to stop work on the project despite the increasingly dry conditions.

Destruction

On July 18, water bombers were called to the Henvey Inlet First Nation, as work crews struggled to control a fire.

Despite the best efforts of firefighters, the blaze quickly spread. It jumped the Key River in a matter of days and consumed more than a dozen cabins and cottages.

Over the next two months, Parry Sound 33 destroyed 11,000 hectares of forest on the First Nation territory and in French River Provincial Park, a historic canoe route for Canada’s early fur traders.

Watch: The Burkes give a tour of what used to be their cottage.

Stove, metal all that remains of Burke family cottage. 1:50

All that remains from the family cottage of Jean and Alan Burke are ashes, a stove and a few metal scraps.

“This land we’re standing on, this burnt carcass, is not worth anything. It’s gone emotionally,” Alan Burke said. “Maybe we’ll get that back. But the land is really in such horrible shape.”

Watch drone footage recorded by Scott Lorriman​ in October that shows Parry Sound 33’s path, from the Key River stretching north into French River Provincial Park.

Drone footage recorded by Scott Lorriman shows Parry Sound 33’s destructive path. 0:49

The province has confirmed HIW reported fires to ministry headquarters in Sudbury on May 17 and June 22 and 23. In the case of the May 17 fire, provincial officials had to dispatch water bombers to douse the out-of-control blaze.

The June 22 fire was contained by workers without help from Ontario fire crews.

Watch footage from the June 22 fire at the HIW site.

A look at a blaze on construction site No. 3, weeks before the Parry Sound 33 wildfire ignited. 0:17

But Wayne Hollis says during that time, workers were often dousing spot fires caused by blasting or machinery working in the rocky forest.

Heavy machinery like excavators scrape the rock, causing sparks, Hollis says.

“Sometimes it would cause fires to spark up,” he said. “That went on a couple times a week … because the conditions were so dry.”

Lost job

Hollis says he was laid off by his immediate bosses at Gervais Forest Products, a subcontractor, after posting on social media about the previous fires and the ongoing fire risk as Parry Sound 33 grew.

“My boss was getting pretty mad at me for talking about it. I received threats that I’d be sued,” Hollis said. “My boss said that the company from the States was a big, powerful company and that I don’t stand a chance.”

His ex-boss, Bruno Gervais, flatly rejects Hollis’s allegations about why he was let go.

“Absolutely not!” Gervais said, when reached by phone. “He can say anything he wants. I have nothing to say. I’m still on this project, so I’m not saying anything.”

Hollis recently spent time in jail for a violent domestic assault. He acknowledged his criminal record to CBC and concedes that some people might question the veracity of his claims. But he says he stands by his story.

“I just don’t want this to get swept under a carpet,” he said.

Two other sources familiar with the project confirmed to CBC that they witnessed smaller fires in the lead-up to Parry Sound 33.

Blasting footage

Pattern Energy and its contractor, CER (Quebec-based Construction Énergie Renouvelable), declined CBC’s requests for interviews.

In written statements, Pattern and CER both insist blasting played no role in any of the construction-related fires, or in the one that started on July 18.

CBC has no evidence to suggest otherwise. But it has obtained two videos of previous blasting on the site. Experts say that while the explosions may not have posed a huge fire risk, the footage does raise questions about whether proper safety measures were being followed.

The first clip, recorded on June 11, 2018, shows large chunks of rock showering into Georgian Bay.

Watch footage of an explosion at the work site on June 11.

Experts calls rock blast debris landing in lake a ‘no no.’ 0:21

The second clip, which is undated, shows debris flying high above Henvey Inlet’s forest canopy and through the trees, despite requirements that crews control blasting to protect endangered snakes and turtles.

Footage shows another example of blasting at Henvey Inlet.

Experts question whether blast mats were used in this controlled explosion. 0:25

CBC showed the clips to three industry experts who all agree the volume of debris indicates either no blast mats were used or not enough of them to dampen the explosions.

“There should be a lot more control,” said Wayne Tackaberry, a health and safety adviser in the road construction and mining industry. “Rocks into the lake, from an environmental standpoint, is a definite no-no.”

Blast mats can also help prevent fires, he says, but they are expensive and time consuming to set up.

Blast mats, like those seen in this picture, are made from recycled tires. They are used to suppress blasting debris during controlled explosions on construction sites. (Reliable Tire Recycling )

Pattern would not discuss CBC’s findings or what measures are in place to minimize or control explosions. Nor would the company say what caused the previous fires at the wind farm site — other than blasting played no role.

While CBC has no evidence blasting started any of the fires, a lack of rubber blast mats would be in direct violation of the project’s environmental assessment and the First Nation’s permit.

As for fire risks, Pattern says its general contractor, CER, submitted a detailed plan to the province on how it would prevent fires and meet provincial regulations.

“Construction activities of this nature are permitted to proceed across Ontario in accordance with protocols established by the Ministry,” Pattern Energy’s Frank Davis wrote in a statement.

The province says officials had been working with the wind farm developers since March to “educate” them on how to follow Ontario’s fire regulations.

“Operators must follow regulations but they don’t have to report to us daily,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Cottager OJ Lorriman says she spotted ‘three to four’ fires at the construction site in June and early July. (Dave Seglins/CBC)

OJ Lorriman, a nearby cottager on Georgian Bay, says she and her husband spotted dust clouds from blasting and large plumes of dark smoke from fires at the HIW site on several occasions in late June and early July.

She is furious construction of any kind continued given the dangerously dry conditions.

“This is Group of Seven land. This is Tom Thomson. This is beautiful white pines. It’s canoe trips. The French River. The Voyageurs. There’s so much history in here and it’ll never be replaced,” said Lorriman, surveying the damaged landscape.

Argo inspection

A key aspect of the provincial investigation is a burned-out extreme terrain vehicle found at the suspected start point of Parry Sound 33.

The ministry seized the wreckage of the eight-wheel Argo, and investigators are conducting forensic tests on its chain, battery and other components.

An Argo, similar to the one in this manufacturer’s photo, was burned beyond recognition in the Parry Sound 33 wildfire. (Argo website)

Pattern Energy’s Frank Davis, the company’s top executive based in Canada, says a small crew was working in the bush near turbine site No. 5 the day Parry Sound 33 started. They were hanging “bird tape,” he says, which is used to deter birds from nesting near a construction site.

“There is no road access to this area and an Argo is the only practical means of accessing the area,” he said in an email. “The crew’s role was to hang bird tape prior to construction equipment entering the area.”

Lisa Kivinen, co-president of the Key River Area Association, says the damage is ‘heartbreaking.’ (Dave Seglins/CBC)

Lisa Kivinen, co-president of the Key River Area Association, wonders why any vehicles were in the bush given the extreme fire-hazard conditions across the region.

A cottager since she was a young child, Kivinen fears the charred forest that sits on an inhospitable rocky terrain will take a century to rebound.

“The rock crumbles under your feet like egg shells,” she said. “We walked for miles the last few days and not to see one bird? You know, I don’t know how you can put a value on that.

“It’s heartbreaking.”

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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