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Threat of wildfires at the urban-rural interface, Australia

Determining how bushfires move to help reduce the danger posed to communities

Bushfires are a reality of Australian living

In 2003, bushfires lit up the Australian Capital Territory. Unable to predict the fire’s path, authorities had no choice but to allow the fire to burn its course. One week later, the flames reached the outskirts of Canberra, engulfing the city’s water supply and sewage treatment system as well as many hundreds of houses. The 2003 fires affected the population for years to come.

Whether this trend is driven by the rising cost of city living or simply the hankering for a ‘tree’ change, one thing is certain – the threat that bushfires pose to people and infrastructure in communities along the urban rural interface is very real.

Threat of wildfires at the urban-rural interface is a global research project that aims to build resilience among these communities. To do so, we are investigating best practices in wildfire modelling from around Australia, Europe, and the US, in order to plug this knowledge back into our teams.

Events like Canberra are becoming increasingly common. Climate change means fire season is becoming both longer and more intense. Meanwhile, we’re seeing Australians move to outskirts of cities at a faster rate than ever. ”

Laura Elbourne Binns

Fighting fire with data

While bushfires punctuate Australian history, very little has been recorded about how and where these fires have started and how they spread. These challenges around a lack of historical data have made validating a model difficult.

To address this, the team has leveraged Arup’s global network to seek out prospective collaborators to collect and aggregate data. Technological advances in data collection and classification have opened up a number of possibilities.

Fire scientists in Australia are cataloguing the burn-rate of different types of vegetation. Drone-pilots are able to collect aerial images of terrain, which can then be used to classify regions by topography as well as vegetation type and density. All this data could be integrated back into wildfire modelling software, such as CSIRO’s open-source product, SPARK. Coupled with our built-environment expertise, this will allow us to better to quantify the risk for our communities.

While there’s little we can do to prevent the occurrence of fires we can certainly reduce the danger they pose to our communities.

This includes determining how fires move across the land to give clients insights into how to manage existing buildings and infrastructure projects in high risk areas. It also means enabling our Risk and Planning teams to provide better advice on how bushfires might affect a new building, infrastructure or community planning projects, and what fire prevention strategies might be most effective.