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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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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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