Building on 16 years of Seasonal Bushfire Outlooks

Source(s)
Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre

After 16 years, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC’s Seasonal Bushfire Outlook is being handed over to the end-user community as a mature and successful product.

As Natural Hazards Research Australia develops its new research program, the Outlook now joins a suite of research outputs that have been successfully adopted by the wider emergency services sector, government agencies and community organisations for use and application. The CRC has now handed the production and distribution of the quarterly Outlook to AFAC, with the first of the new Outlooks to be released in in late August.

Strategic decisions on firefighting resources, prescribed fire management and community warnings have been underpinned by the CRC’s Seasonal Bushfire Outlook.

The Outlooks began in 2006 as part of a Bushfire CRC research project with Dr Graham Mills from the Bureau of Meteorology, with the intention being to provide a map of ’bushfire potential’ alongside expert commentary on state and territory conditions and climate conditions and forecasts. The first Outlooks were produced with the expertise of Dr Tim Brown from the Desert Research Institute who developed a similar product in the United States.

The development of the Outlooks has been an ongoing process between the CRC, the Bureau, emergency service agencies in each state and territory, and in recent times AFAC’s Predictive Services Group – demonstrating the power of collaboration at a national and local level to create a meaningful and useful product that can be used by all states and territories, media and a wide variety of government and community organisations.

The first Outlooks were released prior to the southern fire season, around September. Later, a northern Outlook was added to the annual cycle, released around June, which captured the unique fire season across northern Australia. A Bushfire Outlook for New Zealand authorities was also developed around that time. In 2020, the CRC shifted the publication of the Outlook to a regular national quarterly release to better reflect the year-round nature of fire management and operations across Australia. 

The Outlooks are prepared at collaborative workshops by integrating climate forecasts with extensive knowledge of the current state of vegetation, as well as previous fire seasons, to produce an overview for the upcoming fire season. The workshops consider the weather, landscape conditions and cross-border implications leading into the main fire season. Workshop members work together to create a map that shows ‘fire potential’ across the country, in three colours according to above normal, normal and below normal potential. Over time, the definition of ‘fire potential’ has shifted slightly to become ‘the chance of a bushfire or number of fires occurring of such size, complexity or other impact that requires resources beyond the area in which it or they originate’. This allows for cross-jurisdictional awareness and collaboration, especially in state or territory border areas.

The Outlooks have come to serve a range of highly beneficial purposes for different audiences and are a critical component in raising community awareness about the coming fire seasons around the country. They also provide a great opportunity for agencies to speak directly about any preparations underway to mitigate the impacts of the upcoming fire season, and aligns these preparations with the most up-to-date weather and climate science directly from the Bureau.

Governments and fire authorities use the Outlook for strategic decisions, resource allocation, prescribed fire management and planning purposes in the lead-up to their bushfire seasons, including refining their public messages that communicate bushfire risk and highlight areas with the highest potential for fire. The ways that agencies and governments make use of the Outlooks for planning varies. Emergency Management Australia uses the Outlook to advise the Federal Government and relevant departments. It is regularly tabled in state parliaments as a demonstration of the state’s preparedness. Agencies commonly use each Outlook to justify significant investment in resources, such as additional firefighters, vehicles and aircraft. Another key use is to increase community preparedness campaigns in areas of high likelihood of fire.

The Outlook is now also widely distributed among related organisations and community groups for local use. Australian Red Cross uses the Outlook to produce hazard and vulnerability data maps for its emergency service managers around Australia, as part of its seasonal preparedness planning, so that resources can be shifted to areas with higher fire potential. ABC Emergency uses the Outlook to schedule training sessions for its journalists working in potentially hazardous areas around the country, based on the priorities highlighted by the Outlook. Many private companies and government agencies use it as a way of understanding their need for preparedness for the coming season.

With the exception of 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 interruptions, the CRC has launched an Outlook at well-attended and widely broadcast annual media events at the annual conference, with all of Australia’s fire commissioners and chief officers in speaking. These events have become part of the Outlook’s public release, providing a timely opportunity to reach the community and other stakeholders with the key information provided within each Outlook. In recent years, as a testament to the growing industry reliance on the Outlook, the launch has been livestreamed on ABC, SkyNews and other media channels, and followed up with extensive media coverage across print, radio, television and online, making it one of the CRC’s most popular products. Watch the media conferences for 2018 and 2019’s launch.

Over the years, the Outlook has adapted and developed as needed and as the science improved. With the move from a research output into an operational product, it will continue to do so under the stewardship of AFAC.

All the Outlooks are available on the two CRC websites, at www.bushfirecrc.com/firenotes and www.bnhcrc.com.au/hazardnotes.

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