Future of bushfire fighting in Australia

Andrew Gissing, Risk Frontiers, Neil Bibby, People & Innovation

Australia needs to be ambitious in its thinking about how future bushfires are managed and fought. Recent bushfires caused significant damage and widespread disruption leaving some 3093 homes destroyed (AFAC) and 35 fatalities as well as major damage to community infrastructure. We must learn from this experience.

Today’s management of bushfire risk is largely reliant on long standing approaches that are resource intensive and which struggle to control fires when conditions are catastrophic. This issue is compounded under a warming climate with fire seasons becoming longer, and days of significant fire danger more frequent.

An inherent problem is that bushfire detection is complex and in the time it takes before resources can be tasked and targeted, bushfires have already spread to the point where suppression is difficult. This problem is exacerbated when bushfire ignition occurs in remote areas far from emergency management resources. Making the problem worse still is a growing bushland-urban interface where buildings and community infrastructure are highly vulnerable and exposure is growing.

Innovation to discover the next generation of firefighting capability should be a priority in any government response to the Black Summer bushfires. Our institutions must think big.

To explore blue sky thinking in respect of future firefighting capabilities and enhanced bushfire resilience, Risk Frontiers and People & Innovation hosted a forum with experts in construction, technology, aviation, insurance, risk management, firefighting and information technology. In what follows, insights and questions arising from this forum are outlined.

New thinking is required

There are two stages in considering future capabilities. The first stage is planning and investment to improve capabilities in the short term particularly before the next bushfire season, and the second stage is research and innovation to inspire the next generation of firefighting capability. What is needed is a blueprint of how bushfires will be fought in the future. This blueprint should be focused on a vision whereby bushfires can be rapidly managed and controlled in a coordinated manner informed by advanced predictive intelligence; and where the built environment is resilient. Key research questions to be answered in the development of such a blueprint include:

Bushfire detection and suppression

  • How can bushfires be detected more quickly?
  • How can bushfires be extinguished before they are able to spread?
  • How can the safety of firefighters be improved?

Coordination

  • How can communications enable effective coordination?
  • How can resources be tasked and tracked in a more effective manner?
  • How can situational awareness be enhanced to inform decision-making?

Community resilience

  • How can new buildings be made more resilient?
  • How can existing building stock be retrofitted for resilience?
  • How can community infrastructure such as energy distribution systems, telecommunications, water supplies and sewerage systems be designed with greater resilience?

Short term

It is widely agreed that in the short term there are many technologies and systems already existing that could enhance firefighting and broader disaster management capabilities. Specific opportunities identified by industry experts include:

  • Satellites, such as data sourced from the Himawari satellite, should be evaluated for their ability to enhance fire detection. High Altitude Platform Systems may be another option.
  • In the United States, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) have been employed to provide enhanced imagery over firegrounds and if equipped with infrared sensors these can support monitoring of fire conditions at night. The Victorian Government has established a panel contract with UAV providers to assist with real-time fire detection and monitoring. Further policy regarding airspace management is required to support wider demand-based deployments of UAVs.
  • Existing agricultural monitoring technologies could be repurposed to monitor bushfire fuels and soil conditions.
  • Balloons equipped with radio communications could provide coverage when traditional communications technologies have been disrupted. Alternatively, small UAVs could create a mesh network to provide a wireless communications network or equipment fitted to aircraft.
  • Advances in the use of robotics in the mining sector may provide applications to firefighting, for example autonomous trucks.
  • Resource tracking technologies could be implemented to improve coordination and firefighter safety.
  • Emerging fire extinguisher technologies could help to suppress bushfires.

Operational decisions could be improved by enhanced collation and fusion of data already available. There are many data sources that are managed by different organisations, not just government agencies. Collating these datasets to provide a common operating picture across all organisations would improve situational awareness and data analytics.

The widespread adoption of artificial intelligence and greater digital connectedness across the economy and emergency management sector will find new ways to make sense of data and improve decisions. In the built environment, improved information to households about the resilience of their buildings along with programs to implement simple retrofitting measures should be considered. In the aftermath of bushfires, governments should consider land swaps and buy-outs to reduce exposure in high risk areas. Similarly, governments should better plan communities to ensure infrastructure is more resistant to failure when most needed in emergencies.

2030 and beyond

A key area for research and innovation investment over the coming decade should be how to rapidly suppress bushfires once detected. This could see swarms of large capacity UAVs supported by ground-based drones to target suppression and limit fire spread. Resources would be rapidly dispatched and coordinated autonomously once a bushfire was detected. Pre-staging of resources would be informed by advanced predictive analytics and enabled by unmanned traffic management systems. UAVs and drones would have applications beyond fire suppression including for rapid impact assessment, search and rescue, logistics and clearance of supply routes.

The way forward

A research and innovation blueprint is needed that outlines how technologies will be translated to enhance firefighting and resilience in the short term and, beyond this, how the next generation of capability will be designed and built. Its development should involve government, research and industry stakeholders in a collaborative manner. The final blueprint should be integrated with future workforce and asset planning to support broader change management.

Adopting new technologies will not be easy and existing cultural and investment barriers should be considered. In adopting new technologies, it is important to recognise that innovation is an iterative process of improvement and will rarely provide a perfect solution in the first instance.

Public private partnerships will be key to realising opportunities and government must seek to engage a broad range of stakeholders. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the United States in 2012, the US Government launched a competition called ‘re-build by design’ focused on proactive solutions to minimise risk. Already in Australia, numerous innovation challenges involving businesses and universities are being held to assist in inspiring ideas. There is an opportunity to harness and coordinate such challenges on a grand scale to promote new thinking and collaboration linking directly with responsible agencies.

We need to be bold in our thinking!

Acknowledgements

Forum participants included IAG, SwissRe, IBM, Defence Science and Technology, IAI, Cicada Innovations, Lend Lease and ARUP.