Australia: Satellites to help show when the bush is ready to burn

Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre

By Costa Haritos

Fire and land managers are set to benefit from a new vegetation condition and flammability online mapping tool—the first of its kind to be introduced in Australia.

Effectively providing a clearer picture of immediate fire risks, the Australian Flammability Monitoring System uses satellite data to collect information on moisture content in highly flammable vegetation, such as fallen bark, leaf litter and grass. It then displays this information on an interactive map, which will help fire managers in their prescribed burning efforts and prepositioning of firefighting resources.

Dr. Marta Yebra, from the Australian National University (ANU), leads a team of researchers who developed the mapping tool. “Bushfires have been part of the Australian landscape for a long time,” said Dr. Yebra. “However, these days, with climate change, the fires are becoming more frequent and more severe.”

A first in Australia

Dr. Yebra’s interactive map is the first web-based system in Australia. It was developed as part of the Mapping bushfire hazards and impacts research project with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.

Emergency services and land management agencies can use the system’s different filters and settings to evaluate the risk of a bushfire occurring in certain parts of the country, based on the dryness of soil and fuels and the flammability of vegetation.

"The displayed fuel moisture content and flammability maps have been generated using freely available satellite data,” said Dr. Yebra.

The prototype system used the satellite data to provide a clear picture of the landscape where there are high levels of vegetation and soil dryness, which are the perfect conditions for a severe bushfire. The satellite data was then used to formulate an algorithm for fuel moisture content. This algorithm was based on Dr. Yebra’s PhD studies on fuel moisture content in Spain.

Dr. Yebra is now looking at ways that fire and land management agencies can use the tool during bushfire seasons.

“The very first step is to make people aware that this tool exists, and then to give them some ideas on how they could use it,” she explained.

One such way could be as part of preseason planning, when fire agencies and land management departments formulate their seasonal outlook for fire and map at-risk areas.

“In comparison to previous years, they can get an idea of how severe the bushfire season may be and therefore they can be better prepared for a given location,” Dr. Yebra added.

“If you compare the current dryness values for a location with the values of previous weeks or months, you can have a sense of how much drier the land is than it was last season, for example, and that may give you an idea of how much danger could be in your specific area.” This could be particularly useful for planning and undertaking prescribed burns.

“They [fire managers] need to know the moisture content of the planned burn area to know whether it is going to be successful, because if it is too wet it will not burn, but if it is too dry it can be over-burned or escape,” she said.

Implementing the map

End user Dr. Stuart Matthews is a senior project officer at the NSW Rural Fire Service. He thinks the fire mapping tool will provide some useful applications.

“Over the next few months we will work with Marta on how to use it,” he said.

Dr. Matthews said implementing the prototype into organisations including the NSW RFS is a gradual process. He is looking forward to using it more thoroughly during the upcoming fire season, since the map was developed during the previous season.

Where to next?

Data on the map is currently updated around every four days, but the research team is looking at a ways to ensure the content is even more up to date.

Refreshing data on the map is currently a tedious process—satellite data needs to be collected before the algorithm is run, and then downloaded onto the national computing infrastructure at ANU. Dr. Yebra said the idea is to make the map update automatically, with live data provided daily.

Dr. Matthews said that while NSW RFS currently receives and provides daily updates on soil dryness in summer periods, gaining the confidence and understanding of the tool will be of utmost importance moving forward. “There needs to be a group of operations people who understand what the numbers mean. A weekly estimate makes scientific sense, but it would be interesting to see daily data,” he said.

For now, the core audience for the system is fire managers, but in the future Dr. Yebra hopes that use of the mapping could expand to individual community members, such as farmers. Those on the land could use the mapping to assess how dry their patch is when preparing for the fire season.

While there has been interest from community groups on how the mapping can be used at a local level, Dr. Yebra said people will always take time to trust and use a new information system.

Associate Professor Geoff Cary and Professor Albert van Dijk from ANU, alongside student researcher Li Zhao and two associate students, Wasin Chaivaranont and Andrea Massetti, make up the research team. The team has already attracted interest from government agencies and multinational organisations, including Boeing.

The team is testing the system in its present state before identifying where it can be used by fire managers and the community. Dr. Yebra is sharing her findings with key stakeholders to gain feedback on the map through seminars and workshops. She has also taken part in a briefing through a webinar coordinated by AFAC. These types of education events will help inform fire and land managers of the benefits of using a tool such as the Australian Flammability Monitoring System in their organisation.

Dr. Yebra was awarded the Max Day Environmental Science Fellowship from the Australian Academy of Science in 2017 for her work on the project and in other related areas. 

The Australian Flammability Monitoring System tool is available here.

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