Bushfire in tropical Australia
The bushfire season isn’t wasting any time this year. There are already large fires in South Australia and NSW, and the obligatory ‘the state is a tinderbox’ warnings came out months ago. There were bushfires in July in NSW, and the number of local council areas in southern Australia declaring the fire season open in August – it starts in July up north – has more than doubled.
So a program on SBS on bushfires is timely. Inside the Inferno screens at 8.30pm on 5 November and 12 November. It’s mainly about the everyday heroes who volunteer to fight bushfires. But there’s a fair bit about the science of bushfires, and that’s where we come in. We contributed to the program, but much more importantly, we contribute to helping keep people safe from fires.
You might be surprised at how much of our work has a connection to fires. It’s not all we work on, obviously, but many areas of science go into prediction and management of fire.
Let’s start at prediction. Wenju Cai and his team at the Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship have been working on a better understanding of the El Niño Southern Oscillation and its lesser-known counterpart, the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). Their groundbreaking work has established that the IOD preconditions south-eastern Australia for major bushfires, and enabled us to stretch out the prediction range for severe fire activity to between four to six months. What you can predict, you can plan for.
And you need to know exactly what you’re planning for. That’s what the Pyrotron helps us do. It’s a 25 metre long fire-proof wind tunnel, with a working section for conducting experiments and a glass observation area.
It’s used to study – safely, under controlled conditions – how fires ignite in bushfire fuel and how they spread. Obviously, this is necessary work that can’t be done in the field under wildfire conditions. Using the Pyrotron we can study the mechanisms of bushfires’ spread, their thermokinetics – the chemistry of combustion – and fuel consumption, emissions and residues under different burning conditions.
But we won’t ever be able to prevent fires breaking out. We can plan, we can study, but we can’t change the nature of Australia. We can’t stop hot, dry days or lightning strikes. What we can do is find the safest way to live in our combustible climate.
Fire is one of many influences that define our living space. The challenge is to find acceptable ways of living with bushfires while retaining the ability to choose where and how we live. We also need to dispel some of the myths about bushfires that have put people and property in greater danger than was necessary. And we need to understand the risks from bushfires inherent in different types of construction. We need to know what’s safest and strongest, and how to build it.
We’ve surveyed every bushfire involving significant house loss since the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, and we’ve tested a variety of construction methods to find optimal building types for fire-prone areas. How do we test them? The obvious – only – way. We set fire to them.
It’s not just how resistant they are to collapsing into a pile of ashes that’s important, although obviously that’s a major consideration. We also need to know what kind of house would best enable people to shelter in them while actively defending them from the bushfire attack. To put this all together, we use our expertise in:
- assessment of bushfire risk at the urban interface
- integrated urban design solutions including whole-of-life energy and water use, biodiversity, landscapes, cultural value systems, lifestyle expectations, and risk from other sources
- analysis of major bushfire events
- development of fire spread prediction models and tools
- evaluation of fire suppressants and applications
- post-incident analysis of bushfire impact on houses and people
- fire characteristics at the urban interface
- community education
- performance of materials during bushfire exposure
- characterisation of materials or systems performance in bushfires
- product development, verification and enhancement for use in bushfire-prone areas (specialist coatings, glazing protection, timber deck design).
- fire fighter vehicle burn over protection systems
It’s a lot, but we don’t stop there. We also work on disaster management tools for fires. We developed the Emergency Response Intelligence Capability (ERIC) in collaboration with the Australian Government Department of Human Services Emergency Management team.
This uses information from a range of sources and includes:
- region data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics
- context data including demographics and details of the natural and built environment
- ‘live’ data feeds describing the emergency event as it progresses and the historical record of previous ‘live’ data feeds
- an archive of previous situation reports
This information can be focused for a specific region under investigation and collated semi-automatically to generate situation reports. The situation reports include information synthesised from available datasets and augmented by user provided content. The situation reports it generates describe what the event is, where it is located and the impact on the local community and to the department.
These days, social media is one of the most important channels when a disaster is unfolding, so we’re working on that too. Every minute, vast amounts of information are communicated via Twitter. Our challenge is to make relevant information accessible to emergency services.
Without suitable tools this information can’t be used. A huge amount of detail about the 2009 Victorian bushfires was reported in real-time on social network sites. The trouble was that state and federal disaster response agencies couldn’t see it.
We’ve created Emergency Situation Awareness (ESA) software to detect unusual behaviour in the Twittersphere and alert users in the emergency services if a disaster is unfolding online.
So that’s our contribution to helping keep people safe from bushfires, and, if worst comes to worst, in them. We hope it helps the firies – they deserve all the help they can get.