Learnings from the Bushfire CRC

The change in the way that bushfires are managed has been strengthened by the extensive and concerted efforts of the Bushfire CRC.
The bushfires of the scale experienced on Black Saturday in 2009 raised many research questions for fire and land management agencies right across Australia and New Zealand. It was on this foundation that the second phase of Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) research was built. As the Bushfire CRC finishes at the end of June this year, the major findings are being drawn together.

Below is part one of a snapshot of selected research projects and their findings, with part two to follow in Fire Australia Spring 2014. In depth reports, along with four page Fire Notes (research summaries in plain language) are available for all at www.bushfirecrc.com

Next generation fire prediction
This multipart research project, led by Bob Cechet (Geoscience Australia) and involving Ian French (Geoscience Australia), Dr Kevin Tolhurst (University of Melbourne), Dr Jeff Kepert (Bureau of Meteorology) and Dr Mick Meyer (CSIRO), has produced the Fire Impact and Risk Evaluation Decision Support Tool (FireDST). FireDST is a proof of concept simulation system that aims to provide critical fire planning information to emergency services, government and the public. It is an advanced software program that has the potential to be used to understand the potential impacts a bushfire may have on community assets, infrastructure and people. FireDST demonstrates the proof of concept to predict the probabilities of both neighbourhood and house loss, as well as the potential health impacts of bushfire smoke and the areas that are likely to be affected by a bushfire. This study was profiled in Fire Australia Summer 2011-2012.

Measuring the health impact of bushfire smoke
As part of the FireDST work, CSIRO’s Dr Mick Meyer sought to evaluate the significance of smoke risks from bushfires and how they compare with those from prescribed fires. The study demonstrated that the impact on regional populations from particulate matter (PM) in the smoke could be severe; in the extreme it could be a much greater public health hazard than the direct risks at the fire front. Bushfire emissions of PM can be enormous and fire is often the dominant source of particulate pollution, occasionally outstripping industrial sources by orders of magnitude. However, the key issue is not the total emission of PM, but the extent to which it mixes back into the atmosphere's surface layer and the length of time that PM concentrations remain high around population centres. These are determined by fire duration and the patterns of smoke dispersion.

Understanding how extreme fires develop
The Fire development, transitions and suppressions project, by Dr Andrew Sullivan, Dr Peter Ellis, Jim Gould and Dr Matt Plucinski at CSIRO, was the first comprehensive investigation of the factors influencing the lifecycle of a bushfire, from its inception, through its development and growth to the point where it begins to throw firebrands and start spotfires, starting the cycle again. This study was profiled in the Fire Australia Spring 2012.

Complex fire weather
The Modelling investigation of lofting phenomena and wind variability project investigated the science behind extreme fire weather and how these conditions contribute to dangerous spotting. Undertaken by Dr Jeff Kepert, Dr William Thurston, Dr Robert Fawcett and Dr Kevin Tory at the Bureau of Meteorology, the team developed a better understanding of the physical mechanisms that lead to bushfire spotting through interactions between a smoke plume and the atmosphere. As this understanding further develops, the ability to be able to predict spotting better will increase. This study was profiled in Fire Australia Autumn 2013.

Making strategic choices
The Integrated assessment of prescribed burning project used case studies in New Zealand’s Central Otago region and South Australia’s Mount Lofty Ranges to provide insights into the question of which fire-prevention strategies provide the best value for money. A decision framework was developed to provide an integrated assessment of the benefits and costs of fire risk management strategies. The study, undertaken by Professor David Pannell and Research Assistant Professor Fiona Gibson at the University of Western Australia, highlighted the fire risk management strategies (including prescribed burning) that are likely to produce the highest benefit per dollar spent. The research shows that the methodology works and can provide valuable decision-making inputs to fire management programs. This work is profiled in this issue of Fire Australia, see page 40.

Economics and future fire scenarios
This study, by Dr Geoff Cary, Dr Helena Clayton, Dr Malcom Gill and Professor Steven Dovers at the Australian National University, provided new insights into future bushfire scenarios for Australia. The research demonstrates that fire activity is likely to increase in wetter environments, but decrease in drier environments. Economic evaluation is a potentially useful tool in exploring management adaptation to these changes, but it is currently under-utilised within agencies. A number of key actions have been identified that will be needed to increase the use of economic evaluation methods, including: (i) increasing the economic expertise amongst bushfire management and policy professionals, and (ii) designing economic evaluation that connects to the broader social and political context of bushfire management decision-making. This study was profiled in the Spring 2013 issue of Fire Australia.

Incident management above the IMT
The Effective incident management organising study has improved the understanding of how multi-agency emergency management coordination at regional and state levels (and at a national level in New Zealand) could be improved in order to reduce the consequences to communities of an emergency. Dr Christine Owen, Dr Roshan Bhandari, Dr Ben Brooks (University of Tasmania) and Dr Chris Bearman (CQ University) investigated information flow, communication, capacity to adjust to emerging scenarios, breakdown in coordination, training and education and how changes to these elements will support more effective incident management. These findings will enable agencies to continue to refine their performance at these levels.

Smoke impacts on firefighters at the rural/urban interface
The Operational readiness of rural firefighters (air toxins) project, undertaken by Dr Fabienne Riesen and Dr Michael Borgas at CSRIO, identified, measured and modelled toxic emissions that firefighters could be exposed to while fighting fires at the urban/rural interface. The findings will enable agencies to deploy firefighters more safely, as well as provide advice to the community. This research was profiled in the Autumn 2014 issue of Fire Australia.

Living on the edge
Many rural/urban landscapes, while a fire risk, are beautiful. In many cases this beauty is the reason why people choose to live in these areas, despite the risk. This pilot research project applied the process of ‘place mapping’, a new approach for fire and land management agencies, to gain a better understanding of how communities in rural/urban areas perceive fire risk in the context of their natural landscape. The University of Melbourne’s Associate Professor Ruth Beilin and Dr Karen Reid found that the place mapping process can provide community members with a mechanism through which to communicate their perspectives on bushfire risk. This research was profiled in the Winter 2013 issue of Fire Australia.

Mapping fire severity in the tropical north
The Northern Fire Mapping project, a collaboration between Dr Jeremy Russell-Smith and Dr Andrew Edwards at Charles Darwin University, and Dr Mick Meyer from CSIRO, developed fire severity mapping to help manage fire in the tropical savannas and rangelands across Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The study has determined that on average over half the landscape was affected by fire each year, releasing vast amounts of carbon and destroying the carbon stored in trees. Reducing these greenhouse gas emissions will have enormous financial benefits for fire managers, as well as indigenous land owners, allowing them to earn incomes managing the land. The results of the project have improved ecological-risk assessments, including greenhouse gas emissions, tree carbon sequestration, biodiversity and erosion.