When a wind turbine caught fire Sunday on the Caprock southeast of Tucumcari, volunteer firefighters rushed to put it out. Now officials with Cielo Wind Power Inc. seem to be threatening legal action against one of those volunteers if he distributes pictures of what he saw.
Nice neighbors, huh?
Richard Flint of San Jon said he routinely takes photos at fire scenes to assist with his record keeping. The fire at the wind turbine was unusual enough that he thought others might want to see it. He offered an image for publication in this newspaper.
But when Cielo officials learned he had the photo, Flint said a company official called and threatened litigation if it were published.
Crystal Wiest of Cielo said Friday she never threatened a lawsuit against him, but told him, legally, he had broken some laws. She declined additional comment.
Whatever the threat, Flint doesn’t want a battle with a company worth millions of dollars, so he asked that we not publish his picture.
We’ve agreed to honor Flint’s request, though we’re disappointed our readers won’t see the image. Cielo, an Austin, Texas-based company that promotes itself as “the largest wind developer in the Southwest,” should be ashamed of itself for suppressing information the public has every right to see.
Flint’s photo simply showed the flames and smoke from a fire at the base of a 220-foot turbine. A story on the front page of today’s paper reports the fire started when a turbine blade fell and struck a transformer. Company officials have downplayed the unusual incident, saying damage was limited to the lone turbine. Smoke from the fire was seen for miles around the region so it attracted a lot of attention.
Cielo President Walt Hornaday said the company is sensitive about any photos being published because “we’re not sure of the situation surrounding the cause of the accident. There’s still an investigation going on.”
Hornaday said he believes the firefighter acted inappropriately in offering the photo to the paper. “We asked him to help us out in a pinch, not distribute pictures,” Hornaday said. “He’s taking advantage of what happened out there.”
Advantage? How? By showing his friends and neighbors what the fire looked like that everyone was talking about? A fire fought by Flint and his fellow firefighters from three communities who volunteer their time to protect people, their places and their companies?
Flint did not ask the newspaper to pay him for using his photo. And we didn’t offer to pay him. So there was no monetary gain of any kind that we know of. How is he “taking advantage” of anything? He simply believed people would like to see an unusual image up close.
This threat and upset by a couple of Cielo employees appears to us a result of understandable embarrassment. A blade fell off of a new turbine and they would prefer the public not see the result.
Why? People want to know — as Cielo’s leaders obviously do — how that could have happened to this most visible project. And how will they ensure a blade doesn’t fly off in the future and, perhaps even hurt someone, not just cause a fire?
Flint had every right to take photos of the accident scene in his role as a volunteer firefighter. It is logical that emergency workers would want to photograph every fire they fight for their organization’s historical records, or future training purposes, or as a way to protect the department against a lawsuit if accused of wrongdoing. And it’s certain the companies providing insurance coverage to a fire victim would want to see such evidence before paying claims.
Once photos like Flint’s are taken in the line of duty, they become public record, Cielo should know. And when that happens a fire department has a legal obligation to distribute said photos to the public upon request.
We’re not making that formal request at this time out of respect for Richard Flint. We think he’s been through enough heartache for his good intentions.
But we say shame on Cielo for its bullying tactics. When you ask a neighbor to help save your property from fire, you can’t be surprised when he tells — or in this case shows — other neighbors what he saw while risking his safety. You certainly don’t call him up and scare him with threats of lawyers or claim he’s “taking advantage” of the situation.
Cielo owes Richard Flint a heartfelt apology. That’s what neighbors do when they make a mistake.