By Dr Ehsan Noroozinejad, Urban Transformations Research Centre, Western Sydney University, and Dr Aso Hajirasouli, Department of Architecture, Western Sydney University
Australia, a land of breathtaking beauty, has a fierce adversary that has long cast its shadow over its golden coasts and rugged hinterlands: bushfires. These unyielding flames, time and again, have scorched vast expanses, threatening both human settlements and pristine ecosystems. As communities rebuild and forests regrow, there emerges a pressing question: How can we anticipate the unpredictable? The answer lies in early detection.
By capturing the initial whispers of a potential blaze, we not only stand a better chance at swift mitigation but also safeguard our future. This synergy of technology, foresight, and proactive governance could be the game-changer in Australia’s age-old battle against bushfires. The Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, among others, are grim reminders of nature’s wrath.
Historically, from the Ash Wednesday fires to the recent 2019-2020 fire season, Australia’s confrontation with bushfires has been tumultuous. While traditional methods like watchtowers and human patrols served their time, the evolution of detection, thanks to technology, offers renewed hope.
The science behind early detection systems
Bushfire detection has transitioned from rudimentary lookout towers to advanced technology-driven solutions. Central to this evolution is the use of multispectral imaging, where sensors detect radiation not only in the visible spectrum but also in infrared and ultraviolet ranges. As vegetation dries out and heats up, it emits distinct radiation patterns even before a fire starts, allowing for potential pre-ignition alerts.
Satellite-based systems such as Sentinel satellites from the European Space Agency provide regular and high-resolution imaging suitable for monitoring large forest areas. These systems use Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology, which can penetrate clouds and smoke, offering consistent surveillance irrespective of weather conditions.
Moreover, satellite data, when integrated with Geographic Information Systems (GIS), allows for precise tracking of fire movements, enabling more effective firefighting strategies. Ground-based solutions, on the other hand, leverage a mix of thermal cameras, smoke detectors, and anemometers. The integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) has significantly enhanced these systems.
Algorithms can now analyse data in real-time, distinguishing between a benign smoke source and a potential bushfire. Advanced AI models can even predict the direction and speed of the fire spread based on real-time wind and weather data. Additionally, acoustic detection has shown promise, with systems detecting the infrasound emitted by fires, even when they’re tens of kilometres away. The key lies in identifying the unique low-frequency sounds of a fire, distinguishing it from other natural and human-made noises.
Together, these technologies offer a holistic and robust framework for early bushfire detection, setting a solid foundation for timely intervention.
Benefits of early detection
Early bushfire detection systems are not just technological marvels; they are lifelines that offer profound benefits, particularly for local councils and communities. At the core, the foremost advantage is enhanced community safety. By providing early warnings, these systems afford residents vital time to evacuate or take necessary precautions, significantly reducing the potential for casualties. This not only ensures the well-being of individuals but also alleviates the strain on emergency services, potentially diminishing post-fire rehabilitation costs.
Protecting local assets is another pivotal advantage. Councils have invested immensely in public infrastructure, and these systems enable preventive measures to safeguard assets like schools, parks, libraries, and recreational centres from the devastating impacts of bushfires. On a broader scale, the economic health of the community is safeguarded.
Bushfires can severely cripple businesses, particularly those dependent on agriculture or tourism. By catching fires in their nascent stages, the economic backbone of communities can be preserved, ensuring sustained livelihoods. Efficiency in crises is vital. Early detection systems provide actionable, data-driven insights that allow Australian councils to make informed decisions about resource allocation.
Whether it’s dispatching firefighting teams, providing medical aid, or planning evacuation routes, these decisions become more effective, maximising the impact of the response and conserving vital resources. Additionally, the environmental implications cannot be overlooked.
Councils often play an integral role in conserving local ecosystems. With early detection, fires can be contained before they escalate into large scale disasters, ensuring the protection of regional flora, fauna, and the broader ecosystem. Furthermore, the bond between councils and their communities is fortified. Residents, knowing that their safety is prioritised through the adoption of advanced detection systems, develop a strengthened trust in their councils. This trust is invaluable, fostering a sense of collective responsibility and unity in combating bushfires.
Finally, the long-term fiscal benefits are significant. While there’s an initial investment in setting up these systems, the potential reduction in post-fire recovery costs makes it economically prudent. Not to mention, the invaluable data these systems provide can guide future urban planning, ensuring that communities are not just reactive but proactive in their approach to bushfires.
Success stories and challenges
In understanding the practical advantages of early bushfire detection systems, it is invaluable to examine real-life scenarios where they’ve made a difference. In 2017, New South Wales witnessed one of its most unpredictable fire seasons. The fires, exacerbated by intense dry spells and unpredictable winds, posed significant threats to both urban and rural communities.
However, early detection systems proved to be a gamechanger. Not only did they provide timely alerts, but they also facilitated efficient resource allocation. As a result, rapid response units were dispatched in record time, preventing the fires from reaching several populated areas. This swift action not only saved countless properties but also protected wildlife habitats and conserved the natural landscape, emphasising the broader ecological implications of early intervention.
Fast forward to 2018 in Western Australia. Here, advanced satellite imagery played a pivotal role. When these satellites picked up unusual heat signatures indicative of a budding fire, local councils were immediately notified. Equipped with this early information, authorities swiftly implemented preventive measures. Firefighters and ground teams were strategically placed, community evacuations were efficiently conducted where necessary, and containment strategies were optimised.
The potential disaster, which could have displaced numerous families and devastated local ecosystems, was mitigated, further underlining the immense value of early bushfire detection systems. These instances underline not just the operational efficiencies introduced by the technology but also spotlight the profound impact on community safety, ecological balance, and economic stability.
The success stories are a testament to the synergy between technology and proactive governance, advocating for broader adoption across Australia. However, the road to comprehensive coverage is fraught with challenges. Technological hiccups, including system malfunctions or false alarms, can be deterrents. Australia’s diverse terrains, from dense rainforests to arid zones, mandate customised solutions.
Furthermore, while the promise of technology is alluring, it requires sustained funding—a challenge for many local councils.
Recommendations for the federal government and local councils
In light of the increasing threats posed by bushfires, the Federal Government and local councils are presented with a dual challenge and opportunity. Addressing the bushfire crisis requires not only immediate action but visionary leadership that anticipates future challenges.
Here are targeted recommendations to help pave the way forward:
Holistic approach to R&D:
- Invest in specialised research centres
- Foster collaboration between scientists, tech experts, and forest officers
- Centralised knowledge-sharing platforms
- Promote the sharing of resources and best practices
- Forge alliances with tech industry leaders and startups
- Offer tax breaks, grants, or seed funding for relevant innovations
- Launch awareness programs and community drills
- Empower every citizen to be vigilant and proactive
- Upgrade existing systems to integrate the latest technologies
- Prioritise communication lines and establish command centres
- Draft a comprehensive policy framework detailing all stages from prevention to recovery
- Offer a clear and actionable roadmap for all stakeholders
- Earmark-specific funds for bushfire mitigation
- Ensure rapid availability of resources in crises
- Engage with international counterparts to glean insights from global best practices
Addressing bushfire threats isn’t merely about dousing flames; it’s about crafting a future where communities are resilient, environments are protected, and proactive defence becomes a hallmark of governance. As policymakers and community leaders, the onus is on you to weave this safety net. The blueprint is here; the time for decisive action is now.
Call to action
In a land as vast and diverse as Australia, where our natural wonders range from the azure Great Barrier Reef to the rugged outback, the recurring challenge of bushfires has long been woven into the nation’s narrative. The escalating intensity and frequency of these fires, driven by factors like climate change, make the case for advanced early detection systems even more pressing.
Such systems represent more than just technological feats; they embody the convergence of cutting-edge innovation, judicious governance, and the unwavering commitment of local communities — all unified in the mission to safeguard Australia’s unique heritage and spirit.
To our esteemed readers — from researchers delving into the intricacies of fire behaviour in the Australian bush to the diligent council members tasked with the guardianship of our towns and cities and the vigilant citizens who call this great southern land home — each of you plays an irreplaceable role.
Now is the time to rally behind this pivotal cause, fuel the momentum of research and collaboration, and ensure that when we look towards our vast horizons, we see a testament to nature’s splendour, not a forewarning of its wrath.
Dr. Ehsan Noroozinejad is a Senior Researcher at the Urban Transformations Research Centre (UTRC), Western Sydney University, and an AEC consultant, where he specialises in Resilient Construction and Infrastructure. With a wealth of experience, Dr. Noroozinejad previously held a prestigious position at UBC Smart Structures in Canada. He also holds numerous memberships on committees and commissions, including the FIB, ASCE, MECLA, ASME, ANSHM and many more. Dr. Noroozinejad has authored over 130 indexed journal papers and published seven books on his areas of expertise, which span resilience-based design of structures, digital twins in construction, and reliability engineering, among others.
Dr. Aso Hajirasouli is a Lecturer at Western Sydney University. She has diverse experiences ranging from governmental to academic settings, and her research primarily seeks to enhance the relevance of cutting-edge studies in the design and built environment sectors. By emphasising core theories and crafting innovative methodologies, she aims to address pressing challenges with inventive solutions. Her commendable achievements include securing multiple competitive national CAT 1 grants from esteemed bodies such as the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, CSIRO, and the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment, and Water. Additionally, she boasts a publication record of roughly 30 high-calibre papers.