A ten-storey-high wind turbine which came crashing down into farmland appears to have caught fire before toppling over, an expert said.
The 35-metre tower toppled over on private land at East Ash Farm in Bradworthy on Sunday, less than three years after it was commissioned.
The company which installed the equipment, Dulas, yesterday said no-one had been injured or put at risk by the incident and launched a "full root-cause analysis" investigation.
Bob Barfoot, North Devon chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and an expert on turbines, said photographs showed the tower had been turned into a "mangled, blackened wreck" with melted blades.
Keith Tomlin, a parish council spokesman, said the turbine came down in "unexceptional weather" and claimed there was concern over plans to site an identical model near a road.
But forecasters said winds were gusting up to gale force at the time, and a fast-moving weather front may well have provided the "ingredients" for a lightning strike.
The £250,000 turbine – an Endurance Wind Power E-3120 50kW device – was the first model of its kind to be erected in the country, and comes with a five-year warranty.
Some industry sources doubted reports of a fire.
Mr Barfoot, a planning consultant who assists local campaigns against turbines, said the Canadian-built generator is a "down-wind" device, which swings like a weather vane as the wind changes direction with the blades to the rear.
He said the model was "crude" compared to more advanced, motor-driven wind-facing machines, adding that it should have shut down when winds became too strong.
"It is clear from the photo that the turbine caught fire," he added. "The fire damage may have destroyed the control system preventing the turbine from shutting down in the strong winds.
"The blades would have rotated beyond the allowable maximum speed and destroyed the whole turbine."
Phil Ashmore, who took a photograph and is currently fighting plans for five new turbines at Biteford Farm near his home, said "questions needed to be asked" about the safety of turbines.
Charlie Powell, a forecaster with the Exeter-based Met Office, said winds had gusted up to 50mph in the early hours of Sunday, readings at Chivenor and Bodmin show.
He said: "The weather front could have provided the ingredients for thunderstorms."
Bradworthy parish councillor Keith Tomlin said: "We are relieved to note that no-one was injured but had this happened in daytime there was a chance of serious injury to workers on the farm where it was located or to the public on the road nearby.
"Of greater concern is that Torridge District Council have recently approved the erection of a second turbine of the same size and manufacture at this location that would be closer to the public road.
"This incident must be a wake-up call for Torridge District Council in their policy towards wind turbines and until the result of any investigation into this incident has taken place they would be prudent to halt the erection of any other wind turbines in the district."
In a statement, Dulas chief executive officer Sanjay Bowry said: "We can reassure the local community that due to the isolated location of the turbine, no one was put at risk. We are currently working hard to establish the precise cause of the incident.
"Our technical team is one of the most experienced in the UK and they are working alongside the turbine manufacturer to conduct a full root-cause analysis investigation.
"We will continue to keep communication open and provide updates as and when we have more information."