Global views on fire science

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PhD students from around the world are enhancing fire research in Australia

This article appeared in the Autumn 2013 edition of Fire Australia magazine.

Postgraduate students from around the world are bringing a diverse range of skills, experience and knowledge to enhance fire research through the Bushfire CRC.

The next generation of fire researchers in Australia includes many who have been raised on very distant shores—Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Colombia, England, France, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Nepal, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa, South Korea and the US.

The Bushfire CRC postgraduate program is designed to build the capacity and capability of the industry. In recent years, that expertise has taken on a strong international flavour, with around one-third of the current 52 Bushfire CRC PhD scholarships granted to students from outside of Australia.

These international students, from a diverse range of academic disciplines across the physical and social sciences, offer a new perspective to Australia’s growing base of fire research. Some are from countries with a history of bushfire but many are not.

Bushfire CRC Research Manager Lyndsey Wright said these students are helping to build a global network and community of fire researchers.

“The breadth and depth of our student cohort is an acknowledgement that all the bushfire knowledge doesn’t necessarily reside in Australia,” Ms Wright said.

“An outside perspective builds up a more complete picture. Global insights bring new information and new perspectives to life, and really help to broaden the context.”

The benefits are more than this. “Whilst English is sometimes considered the language of science, there are also important publications published in other languages,” she added.

“Through some of our international students, we are now able to learn from some of these studies.”

Global studies

Here is a snapshot of some of these students with international backgrounds.

The social sciences are not necessarily what would be associated with bushfire research, but the current Bushfire CRC program has a substantial program investigating people’s interactions with bushfire. Sondra Dickinson, Mary Cadeddu and Ben Reynolds are a few students undertaking higher studies in these areas.

Emergency management through social networks

Sondra Dickinson, from San Diego in the US, is completing her studies through the University of Melbourne. Hailing from another of the most bushfire-prone areas in the world, Ms Dickinson was already well aware of the risk bushfires pose.

“I’m broadly interested in all emergency management, across all hazards. I have a Master of Science in Emergency Management from San Diego State University, focused on the integration of fire, police and other emergency services as a regional unified group,” she said.

“My Bushfire CRC research is in the discipline of anthropology—I’m looking at how people get information about bushfires through their social networks, which isn’t the same as social media.”

The term ‘social network’ refers to an individual’s relationships with others. It is about personal interactions, however these interactions occur, such as in person, by phone or through social media.

“Anthropology is the way to focus on the human element of bushfire,” she said.

Ms Dickinson’s research analyses the use of social networks within fire-risk communities, to better understand how information about bushfires and relevant risk is transferred and used.

“By exploring how social networks are used to transfer and utilise relevant information, I am considering how informative relationships may carry the potential to be leveraged differently, by adjusting how individuals think about their social networks,” explained Ms Dickinson.

Bushfire planning for couples

Mary Cadeddu has a background in clinical psychology and psychopathology, and hails from Rome, Italy. Her PhD studies, through La Trobe University, aim to identify important decisionmaking processes that couples make that influence the formulation of a bushfire plan. Similar to Ms Dickinson, Ms Cadeddu’s background involved fire.

“My research in Italy was around arsonists and pyromaniacs. It focused on prevention and treatment of violent fire-related behaviours from first childhood to adolescence. It’s a bit different to my work now, but fire is a common element. My research now is the perfect combination between my psychology interests and bushfire.”

Ms Cadeddu has examined transcripts of interviews by the Bushfire CRC Research Task Force conducted immediately after the Lake Clifton bushfire in Western Australia in January 2011.

She sought evidence as to how couples who survived had approached bushfire safety, and how they decided what to do when they were warned about a possible fire. Additionally, a survey of, and interviews with, couples is being conducted in selected bushfire-prone communities to investigate issues in greater depth.

“My project is about the decisions that couples make in the formulation of long-term bushfire planning and preparation. Most research involved in decision-making processes of bushfire preparation focuses on individuals,” explained Ms Cadeddu.

“My research is different, as few studies have looked at the decision-making processes of couples, either through marriage or in a de facto relationship.”

Lessons from history

Ben Reynolds’ research background is a little different. Unlike Sondra Dickinson and Mary Cadeddu, Mr Reynolds, from Middlesbrough, England, did not have a background in fire before undertaking his Bushfire CRC PhD through RMIT University.

“My research background is in history—specifically modern and contemporary European history. It’s a bit of a leap to bushfire,” said Mr Reynolds.

Mr Reynolds’ research is assessing the governance structure relating to bushfire in Victoria, and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each part. Mr Reynolds will interview key stakeholders involved in bushfire safety, including Victorian state government personnel involved in bushfire preparedness, CFA staff, and community members.

The research seeks to understand how the stakeholders perceive the current approach to bushfire safety and why there has been relatively little additional consideration of a more authoritative approach to individual bushfire preparedness.

Mr Reynolds aims to gauge the likely effect if forced compliance with bushfire preparation on residents and communities in rural–urban interface zones was introduced.

“There have been one or two crossovers from my previous research,” Mr Reynolds said.

“I compared civilian preparedness plans during World War II in England to preparedness plans in Victoria for bushfires. In England, plans were developed for workplace-based training for air raids. I think that those lessons could possibly be applied in Victoria to bushfire—why not have residential bushfire training as part of occupational health and safety training?”

From stars to flames

Also from colder climes is Colin Simpson. He is originally from Edinburgh in Scotland and is undertaking his Bushfire CRC PhD through the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

“I don’t have a background with bushfire. I only got involved through this PhD,” said Mr Simpson.

“My background is in physics, astronomy and computer programming. I did a Masters in Astrophysics at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.”

Mr Simpson’s project is investigating atmospheric interactions with bushfire behaviour through the application of numerical weather prediction and fire behaviour coupled modelling.

“I’m looking for interesting meteorological phenomena—things that can affect a fire in situations that firefighters might not expect,” said Mr Simpson.

“It would be really useful for firefighters to know what kind of situations to be aware of where a fire may do something unexpected.”

Astrophysics and bushfire research might seem very different, but Mr Simpson said they are not.

“I’ve taken my computer modelling and mathematic skills and applied them to looking at numerical modelling of fire weather. They sound pretty different, but they’re actually pretty similar.”

Better decisions through maths

Using his mathematical background in a different way is Martijn Van der Merwe, from Stellenbosch in South Africa. Mr Van der Merwe’s studies are based at RMIT University.

“I’m applying mathematics and physics to help incident managers make better decisions. Making good decisions saves lives and property,” Mr Van der Merwe summarised.

Mr Van der Merwe is working towards developing real-time decision-support tools to assist bushfire incident controllers, using operations research methods. These methods can provide a framework to assist in synthesising and analysing information and using it to guide decision-making.

“I want to bring quantitative tools and operations tools that have worked quite well in other areas to incident management for bushfire,” Mr Van der Merwe explained.

“Information such as in what sequence should jobs be completed in a manufacturing line, where resources should be assigned and where should facilities be located. I want to take these techniques and put them in real-time for an incident management team and see how these techniques can be used to assist and to develop decision-support tools.”

“Incident managers have lots of crucial information they have to process, balancing many complex goals. I hope to be able to apply quantitative techniques to models to assist in this decision-making,” Mr Van der Merwe said.

Smoke and plants

The Netherlands does not experience bushfires, but Vicky Aerts is combining her previous forest and nature conservation studies in the Netherlands with her interest in natural disasters through her Bushfire CRC PhD at the University of Sydney.

“If we inhale smoke from a fire, we have to cough to get the smoke out,” Ms Aerts stated.

“I’m interested in what happens to plants. Do they cough too?”

Ms Aerts is investigating the effects of smoke from bushfires and prescribed burns on plant physiology. This involves measurement of immediate and short-term effects using leaf-level physiology and longer-term effects using whole-plant responses. A selection of experimental species, fuel types and exposure times are being used in controlled laboratory and glasshouse experiments.

Field-based experiments are being conducted to estimate immediate and short-term plant responses to prescribed burning and to scale to a landscape level.

“Previously, I’ve studied fire management in Sweden,” said Ms Aerts.

“My Masters studies in Australia investigated nutrient losses in forests after fire. My PhD is a bit different again.”

And if you are wondering if plants cough, they don’t.