How to be fire-ready in an unpredictable world (Part 1)

Context, bushfire forecasting and emergency response

This is the first in a two-part series on bushfires in Australia. In this instalment, we will look at the history of bushfire in Australia and management strategies used to control the spread and limit the damage caused by bushfires. We will also look at advances in bushfire forecasting, and the impacts of forecasts on emergency-response management. In the second part, we will look at the impacts of bushfires beyond the immediate destructive burning, with a particular focus on energy – its generation, transmission, and distribution – and efforts to build energy systems that cause fewer bushfires and suffer less from bushfires that do occur.

It has been heart-breaking to see the impacts of the bushfires across the continent. There are Monash staff and students who have been volunteering with the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and emergency services at this dangerous time, to manage the fires, help the communities affected, and rescue endangered species. And while the fire season is still ongoing, please follow the advice of authorities (here).

Figure 1. This is a fire simulation in the Maintongoon Bushland reserve in the NW of lake Eildon. Red mark at the top is the simulated start of a fire with northerly wind (Dr James Hilton, Data61, CSIRO).

The brutal bushfire season in Australia in 2019-20 has raised questions about fire management and impacts of fires on public safety and on essential services such as electricity and water. Can bushfires be prevented from developing into firestorms and mega-fires through forest management, or are the prevailing conditions the dominant drivers of fire severity? With high-resolution satellite imagery, condition monitoring systems for power networks, and improved forecasting techniques, could we improve our fire management? We spoke to Dr Tony Marxsen about the history of bushfire in Australia. We spoke to Dr Roger DargavilleDr Susie HoDr Diane Kraal and Professor Michael Reeder about forecasting and the current bushfire situation in light of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties in Madrid in late 2019. We also spoke to Dr Francois Petitjean about controlled burning, habitat maps, and off-season planning to prevent bushfires from spreading out of control. And finally, we spoke about one of the key consequences of the 2019-2020 fires which is the impact on air quality in our major population centres with Dr Jenny Zhou and team.

Australia has a long history of extreme bushfires, including Black Friday (Victoria, 20,000 km2, 1939), Black Tuesday (Tasmania, 2,600 km2, 1967), Ash Wednesday (South Australia and Victoria, 5,200 km2, 1983), Black Saturday (Victoria, 4,500 km2, 2009) and the most recent 2019-2020 fire season with at least 120,000km2 burned across NSW and Victoria. For Dr Tony Marxsen, Chairman of the Monash Grid Innovation Hub, understanding the cause of fires is complex. Ignition sources include deliberate arson, accidents resulting from unattended campfires or discarded cigarettes, sparks from powerlines or lightning strikes. Each of these categories covers even more complexity – powerline fires alone arise from four different physical mechanisms and Victoria’s research into these since Black Saturday (2009) has made it a world leader in powerline bushfire safety. In all cases, high fire-risk weather – a combination of temperature, humidity, wind speed and fuel dryness – allows the first flame to grow and spread, sometimes to catastrophic proportions. There is more discussion about powerlines and bushfire risk in Part Two.

2019 was Australia’s driest year on record. Professor Michael Reeder, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment says “numerical weather prediction (using computer models) is one of the great scientific achievements of the second half of the twentieth century. It’s important to note that the Bureau of Meteorology models don’t explicitly forecast fire behaviour. Rather, they forecast the weather at scales relevant to fire behaviour”. Dr Roger Dargaville, Civil Engineering, adds that the ability to monitor, predict and warn people about the evolution of fires in advance is one of the reasons why there have been fewer deaths than previous major fire events. In the past 20 years, the 4 and 7 day forecasts have dramatically improved, going from 40% of total variance explained to better than 70% today for the 4 day forecast, largely thanks to better numerical models and faster computers coupled with higher resolution satellite observations.

Roger stresses that “the bushfire crisis was anticipated many years ago by CSIRO climate scientists who predicted that global warming would lead to more extreme fire conditions in SE Australia. Many currently semi-arid locations around the world (i.e. mid latitude Mediterranean climates) are projected to get drier as the higher latitude storm belts contract towards the poles, meaning places such as SE Australia and California are at risk, but also large parts of South America, Africa and SE Asia will also likely see drier conditions in the future.

Figure 2. Left: Map built from low-resolution satellite images (MODIS). Right: Map built from new-generation high-resolution satellite images (Sentinel-2).

Figure 3. Satellite image taken over the city of Euroa by Sentinel-2 (c) ESA with its associated
map (available at

Figure 4. Map built with the new-generation satellite Sentinel-2. Each colour represents a different type of land cover or land use (pale green for grassland, darker green for gumtrees, blue for water, yellow for canola, bright orange for legumes, pale orange for cereals, etc).

Tony stresses the vulnerability of certain locations to bushfire. Victoria is among the most at-risk regions globally for bushfire because of the plant species occupying the landscape, strong winds, and drought cycles often driven by El Nino. He mentions that “fuel reduction is done as a preventive measure in vulnerable areas, but it became harder to plan when to do fuel reduction as extreme winds and temperatures can increasingly happen any time. Roger adds the window for conducting controlled burns is narrower with a longer fire season and that the fire conditions have become so bad that fires are almost impossible to stop once they get going. For him, it is unlikely that fuel reduction burns can do much to help when the forest is really dry.

Could high resolution land-cover maps such as the MonashVegMap produced by Dr Francois Petitjean be part of the solution in fire management? For Francois maps are important before, during and after bushfire . “Vegetation maps help in working out fuel-load areas for prescribed burns, to create predictions of fire spread, and to asses fire impact. The Sentinel-2 satellite from the European Space Agency and field data are used to create these maps, and an algorithm learns, based on the field data provided by Agriculture Victoria, what the different types of crops and forests 'look like' in satellite images. Francois continues: “CSIRO has started trialling fire spread models using our high-resolution map. CFA has been in touch about the map with an interest in our ability to differentiate between the different types of crops (which burn at different speed). We are also in touch with Emergency Management Victoria to see how to help with fire management during fire season. And we are also working with Australian National University on the live fuel moisture content – essentially, the real-time amount of water in leaves - as it is highly predictive of the risk of fire, especially when it drops below 80%”.

Bushfires, climate action and public safety were hot topics at COP25 in December last year. Roger reports “Australia was poorly viewed at COP25 – the efforts to include carry-over credits from the Kyoto protocol to the Paris Agreement 2015 were seen to be not in the spirit of the agreement. Australia’s targets are already among the weakest in the developed world. The emissions from the current bushfires are similar to a year’s worth of fossil emissions for Australia, however these emissions are not considered part of the Paris target as the assumption is that the forests and grassland will eventually recover and draw down as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as was released by the fires”. Dr Diane Kraal reports “the Paris Agreement 2015, article 6.2, doesn’t allow the use of carry-over credits from the Kyoto Protocol. Article 6.2 provides for countries to strike bilateral and voluntary agreements to trade carbon credits, known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs. Article 6.2 was one of the ‘sticking points’ at COP25 where countries, such as Brazil, China, India and Australia were emphatic about retaining their surplus of old credits from the previous Kyoto regime for trade under in the future. They rejected the new market set-up covered by Paris Agreement.” Diane states that “the Australian bushfire catastrophe will be a vector for our government’s rethinking of climate policy. Both government and Opposition will reveal more details as we head toward COP26 in Glasgow”. Dr Susie Ho, School of Biological Sciences, co-leading the Monash delegation at COP25 with Dr Diane Kraal, stresses that "people were watching Australia's performance in negotiations against a backdrop of media coverage of our bushfire crisis. The scale and severity, as well as the globally unprecedented nature of the Australian fires drew substantial attention to the need for climate strategy and the importance of long-term thinking. Energy access was mentioned in terms of infrastructures; from water supply to energy to food distribution. The 2019-2020 bushfires catalysed discussions on the importance of science-based dialogue and science education, communication and outreach for climate action”.

One of the key consequences of the fires in 2019-20 has been the impact on air quality in our major population centres, including Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. Dr Jenny Zhou, Civil Engineering, and her team took high time-resolved measurements between 1st Nov 2019 – 1st Feb 2020, at one outdoor station and twenty-four indoor spaces in two energy-efficient buildings at Monash University, Clayton Campus, Melbourne, Australia. The multifaceted data collected will contribute to the fire-ready research cluster in the following two topics: 1) to optimize building energy efficiency and occupants’ health when outdoor condition is compromised, 2) to model the size-dependant deposition behaviour of fire-induced particles on the photovoltaic panels and quantify its impact on generation efficiency. The 3-month monitoring covers both bushfire-induced hazy period and non-hazy period. They measured i) particulate matter with size ranging from 5nm-20µm, ii) gaseous pollutants (formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds) and iii) climate conditions (air temperature, relative humidity, and CO2). The team is currently analysing the data for gaseous compounds from bushfire and the energy behaviour (electricity consumption and PV generation).

Dr Roger Dargaville, Civil Engineering, is an expert in energy systems and climate change. Roger specialises in large-scale energy system transition optimisation, and novel energy storage technologies such as seawater pumped hydro and liquid air energy storage. He has conducted research in global carbon cycle science, simulating the emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel and exchanges between the atmosphere, land and oceans as well as stratospheric ozone depletion.

Dr Susie Ho is the Deputy Associate Dean (Education) of the Faculty of Science. She has over ten years’ experience in higher education, including in course curriculum design, teaching, and scholarly research, and a background in environmental consultancy. Dr Ho currently leads an inter-Faculty team to deliver the forward-thinking and interdisciplinary Master of Environment and Sustainability, which spans arts, science, business and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute.

Dr Diane Kraal, Monash Business School, is an expert on taxation law and policy for natural resources. Diane applies empirical approaches to taxation law with the object of considering economic, political and environmental impacts. She uses both qualitative and quantitative research approaches. Methods include comparative studies, interviews, statistics, text analysis, case studies and grounded theory. Recent research projects on renewable energy use the ‘energy justice’ framework.

Dr Tony Marxsen has an electrical engineering degree and PhD from Monash University. During his career in the Victorian electricity industry, he worked in all aspects of electricity transmission and distribution engineering and business management. Tony was lead researcher in Victoria’s R&D program to cut bushfire risk associated with rural powerlines and remains involved in oversight of the roll-out of Rapid Earth Fault Current Limiters to the State’s highest risk networks and modern ACRs to all of Victoria’s SWER networks. Tony is Chairman of IND Technology Pty Ltd and plays an active role in the development of Early Fault Detection technology which is now installed in Australia, China and the US.

Dr Francois Petitjeanis a Senior Researcher (Data Science) at Monash University. He moved to Australia in 2012 after finishing his PhD with the French Space Agency (CNES), for which he received several awards. He currently leads a team of 7 PhD candidates and 3 postdocs working in time series analysis, Earth observation and graphical models. He has published 50+ papers, received multiple 'Best paper' awards, and is the fortunate recipient of the prestigious DECRA fellowship funded by the Australian Government.

Professor Michael Reeder is a professor in the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment. He was awarded a PhD in applied mathematics 35 years ago, after which held appointments at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Centre, USA, the University of Munich, Germany, and Monash University. His specialist area of research is synoptic-dynamical meteorology, which is the science of weather-producing systems. He has also worked in the fields of fire behaviour and fire weather.

Dr Jenny Zhou, pursues research through a mix of laboratory experiment, field monitoring, data analysis and modelling. Her contribution to life cycle assessment & sustainable built environment has been acknowledged by international awards and invitations. Some highlights include Green Talents awarded by The German Federal Ministry of Education & Research, research exchange fellowship by the Lloyd's Register Foundation, and forum invitations from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Universitas 21 network.

For further information

There is more discussion about powerlines and bushfire risk in Part Two