Spark of hope in Australia’s bushfire crisis

By Chris Chelvan

16 January 2020

3 minute read

bushfire burning low to the ground

We expect to see more frequent extreme bushfires in Australia. So how can we plan ahead?

Australia’s bushfire crisis has caused untold damage to people, property, flora and fauna. Fires are a natural occurrence in Australia. But many factors including a warming climate and drought have made this bushfire season particularly devastating.

As we adapt to more severe weather events in a changing climate, we need a better understanding of how bushfires start and spread. That way we can plan ahead, mitigate risk and support the brave firefighters risking their lives to protect our homes.

Drawing on our knowledge of fire behaviour and Data61’s simulation science and artificial intelligence expertise, we developed Spark. Spark is a tool for fire prediction and analysis.

Bright spark: predicting the unpredictable

Bushfires are complex processes and many elements can influence their behaviour. From fine-scale variations in the weather to topography and distribution of fuel. As a result, it’s hard to accurately determine how a fire might spread.

Fighting and controlling fires is difficult for emergency services due to this uncertainty. Even deciding the best evacuation routes in uncertain fire conditions can be challenging.

Spark relies on weather data like air temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction. It also integrates geographic information including land slope, vegetation and unburnable areas such as roads and bodies of water.

Dr Mahesh Prakash leads the natural systems modelling group in our Data61 team. He said with these inputs, Spark can run fire predictions for any given location.

“Spark provides valuable information to emergency management authorities. This includes the rate at which a fire spreads, the direction it spreads, as well as the locations it will affect,” Mahesh said.

“Such predictions play a critical role at the frontline, supporting decisions on where best to deploy often limited resources. Bushfire researchers can also use it to understand different types of fire models.”

Screenshot of Spark user interface showing coloured consentric circles on a map

Spark takes current knowledge of fire behaviour and combines it with simulation science and artificial intelligence to predict bushfire spread.

Building our bushfire resilience at home and abroad

Spark is one of many important tools available. It is being used by emergency management agencies around Australia including fire services in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania.

But, it’s not just Australia that has to contend with increasingly severe wildfires. Chile, the Amazon Rainforest, Sibera and California have recently experienced some of the worst wildfires in history.

Mahesh and his team have worked with Arauco in Chile, one of the largest suppliers of forest and related products in the Southern Hemisphere. Together we were able to provide integrated fire and data science tools to understand and respond to wildfire threats.

Additionally in California, we are evaluating the use of Spark suitable the vegetation and weather conditions in the US. This is being done in collaboration with San Jose State University and some start-ups at the forefront of applying wildfire research in California.

Preparing for future bushfire seasons

As we expect more intense bushfire seasons, Spark and its allied products can support evacuation route planning and the timely issuing of warnings. It can predict the risk to critical infrastructure and reconstruct historical fire events so we can learn from them.

Importantly, Spark can also help identify optimal sites for hazard reduction. For example, planned back burning operations to reduce fuel loads and therefore fire risk.

Spark is available for free for emergency management agencies in Australia.