Bushfire simulation improves prediction

By Julian Swallow 6 September 2010
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Experts have developed a new way to simulate bushfires, to help provide advance warning and save lives.

THE 2009 BLACK SATURDAY events in Victoria were a stark reminder of our vulnerability to devastating bushfires. Now scientists have developed a computer simulation they say will help determine which communities need to be warned of an approaching fire, and where to allocate resources.

“The program should allow us to provide hours of warning of a fire approaching within just minutes of it being discovered,” says fire ecologist Dr Kevin Tolhurst from the University of Melbourne.

The computer program, which predicts the direction, speed and intensity of fires, was created by Kevin and colleague Derek Chong also from the University of Melbourne, in partnership with the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre. Called Phoenix RapidFire, it will be used in Victoria’s bushfire response this summer to provide information to fire agencies, land managers and decision makers.

The system, which has attracted a $21.5 million grant from the Victorian Government, generates a coloured map of Victoria that visually simulates a fire moving across the landscape. The program estimates its impact based on the characteristics of the fire and details in the landscape, such as houses, agriculture, topography, vegetation and proximity to roads.  Because the program simulates a fire across the state, rather than just a local area, “fire-fighting resources can be most effectively allocated,” says Kevin.

Accurate Black Saturday prediction

Anthony Griffiths from the Fire Information and Systems Group at the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment says Phoenix RapidFire was first trialled by authorities during the last bushfire season and has demonstrated “great potential for integrating into our existing systems.”

“Fire prediction in the past could take hours, but with Phoenix RapidFire we can forecast exactly where the fire is going in a matter of minutes, speeding up warnings to communities and putting us in a much better position,” says Anthony.

Kevin told Australian Geographic that had it been available, it is likely Phoenix RapidFire would have helped authorities better predict the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. “If you enter the observed weather forecast and other data from that day, Phoenix RapidFire provides a pretty accurate picture of fire behaviour,” he says.

Australia’s worst ever bushfire tragedy, Black Saturday, occurred on 7 February 2009, when extreme hot weather and strong wind gusts sent bushfires tearing through over 4,500 sq. km of bushland in central and south-eastern Victoria. The monster bushfire destroyed isolated townships and killed 173 people, injured another 5000, and razed 2029 homes.

A subsequent Royal Commission was established to investigate the official response to the bushfires. Its final report, handed down at the end of July this year, recommended that Victoria’s controversial “stay or go” policy – in which residents are given the choice to stay and defend their properties or evacuate early – should be revised, and a new Fire Commissioner appointed to oversee Victoria’s fire-fighting operations.