A person holds a screwdriver to the rotor of a small wind turbine.

A Chico State Team member reassembles the team’s rotor for the 2019 CWC Technical Challenge. | Photo Credit: Werner Slocum, NREL

Each one of the university teams that compete in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Collegiate Wind Competition (CWC) faces challenges that provide students with hands-on experiences in problem solving that they can apply to their careers. Some teams are challenged by working collaboratively with students from other disciplines, while others struggle with the technology, design, or site planning. These are real-world challenges.

As the teams prepared for the CWC 2019 Technical Challenge held in May, the California State University – Chico (Chico State), encountered a unique hurdle: the November 2018 Camp Fire—California's most destructive wildfire on record and the nation's deadliest since 1918. . Many of us watched images of the urban firestorm on TV news broadcasts or social media channels as the Camp Fire swept through (and destroyed) the town of Paradise, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, just 15 miles from the Chico State campus. For the CWC Chico State team, the Camp Fire was personal.

David Alexander, an advisor to the CWC Chico State Team, is also an Associate Professor in the Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and Sustainable Manufacturing Department at the university “When the fire started on November 8th, the team's project was already a little behind schedule,” he said. “Our students had spent a lot of time modeling the aerodynamics of the blades but not much time testing different options.”

The Fall 2018 semester was about halfway complete. With Thanksgiving just a few weeks away, the students were anticipating a week-long holiday to catch up on projects. Then suddenly, because of the fire, the university closed on Friday, November 9, 2018.

“Most of our 15 active CWC team members left Chico and went home to other parts of the state. The air quality was horrible,” said Alexander. “It wasn't safe to be outside—even with a particulate mask. The CWC project stalled and we all waited for the university to re-open.”

Luckily, none of the CWC team members or advisors lived in Paradise at the time of the Camp Fire, but Alexander made it clear: “We all knew people who were personally impacted by the fire.” Chico State authorities reopened the campus on November 26, 2018, after a two-week closure.

According to Alexander, when the campus reopened, everyone seemed in shock. Students and faculty alike found it difficult to concentrate and prioritize. Faculty were told they couldn't make up the lost classroom time. “It was very surreal. We tried to pick up the pieces and salvage anything from the semester, but it was difficult—especially for a project like CWC,” said Alexander.

Not a lot of work happened in December, either. “The fire and events that followed were so huge that everyone focused on the immediate needs of others, which felt like the right thing to do,” he said. “That helped us get through it. But getting back to normal right away just wasn't possible.”

Two people stand in front of a clear wind tunnel. A turbine sits inside and a team of people running the tunnel are seated on the other side.

Chico State Team advisor, David Alexander, and Mechanical Engineering student team member, Brandon Bacud, wait for the wind tunnel to start during the team's last test in the 2019 CWC Technical Challenge. | Photo Credit: Werner Slocum, NREL

When the spring semester started, the Chico State Team took stock of its situation. They were behind schedule and had lost a couple of mechatronic and electrical engineers.

“We didn’t have continuity from the 2018 team,” said Alexander, “but the core team members we had were dedicated and kept moving the project forward.”

Throughout the spring semester, the Chico State Team regrouped, redefined their goals, and continued to recover from the tragedy of the Camp Fire. In May, they competed in the CWC 2019 Technical Challenge and made a strong showing, despite their unique challenges.