For many Australians, last year’s Black Summer bushfire crisis was a humbling reminder of Mother Nature’s ferocity. Record-breaking temperatures, prolonged drought and a generous supply of dry fuels, prompted extreme fire behaviour. Fires burned with devastating impact, at a scale and intensity that has been rarely seen before in Australia.
These conditions put fire prediction tools under pressure. Fire spread, intensity and flame height were very challenging to predict.
With suppression capacity fully committed, some emergency crews struggled to contain the flames that ran until fuel was exhausted or conditions eased – scenes which may become more familiar as climate damage unfolds, warned the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.
Minderoo Foundation’s CEO of Fire and Flood Resilience, Adrian Turner, echoed the sentiment, claiming, “The experience last summer has highlighted the need for better decision support tools to help firefighters protect people and the environment.”
AFAC’s Predictive Services Group – comprising all Australian fire agencies – agreed, and called for a consistent, contemporary predictive modelling capability.
The good news is that innovation is coming in the form of a national simulation tool called Spark Operational. Building on existing systems, the tool is developed by CSIRO’s Data61 through a partnership with AFAC.
Minderoo Foundation is funding the first phase of the development of Spark Operational as part of its Fire Shield Mission, which aims to detect and extinguish dangerous fires within one hour, by 2025.
Fire and emergency services across Australia have endorsed the development of this new national system.
The Spark Operational platform combines fire behaviour knowledge with state-of-the-art simulation science. It churns out predictions, statistics and visualisations – simulating hours of bushfire spread across a landscape in a matter of seconds.
The tool will use data inputs including local topography, fuel, soil moisture and weather trends – all of which impact fire behaviours. The tool will be flexible and modular in its ability to have inputs from ground, aerial and satellite sensors added to inform decision making. This innovative technology can help emergency services plan suppression strategies and pre-position firefighting assets.
With accurate knowledge on where the fire will spread, for example, authorities can send aircraft to lay fire suppressant to slow flame spread and protect infrastructure.
Fire agencies demonstrated this during recent bushfires in the Perth Hills, anticipating fire spread north of Perth and deploying three large air tankers to lay suppressant lines ahead of the fires.
At present a range of bushfire simulation models, with their own datasets that are specific to fuel types, are used in various states. The Spark Operational platform is designed to work effectively in all these fuel types to deliver local accuracy in a nationally consistent framework.
With ongoing refinement from AFAC’s Predictive Services Group, Spark Operational will evolve into a truly national system that allows for consistent and accurate bushfire predictions across borders.
As CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall put it, “2020 changed the game forever. So, we have changed our game too, by unleashing new science and technology to protect our firefighters and Australian communities.”
Mr Turner added, “This pilot project is a critical step towards better supporting firefighter decisions across a full range of fuel types to inform the prediction of fires in the future.”
Phase one of Spark Operational’s development commenced in January 2021 and testing by fire agencies has now started, with the technology set to become fully operational over the next three years.
Established by Andrew and Nicola Forrest in 2001, we are a modern philanthropic organisation seeking to break down barriers, innovate and drive positive, lasting change. Minderoo Foundation is proudly Australian, with key initiatives spanning from ocean research and ending slavery, to collaboration in cancer and community projects.