A strategic approach to controlled burning boosts effectiveness

  Last updated December 5, 2019 at 3:14 pm


A smarter, systematic approach to controlled burning will help ensure resources go where they’re needed most.

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Controlled burning is carried out in long-leaf pine forest. Credit: PetePattavina

Why This Matters: The changing climate and environment are posing new challenges for controlled burning.

Every year, bushfires blaze across Australia and leave destruction in their wake.

We’ve seen this destruction already this fire season. Two million hectares of land have been burnt since July. Currently, about 100 fires are continuing to burn across New South Wales with two emergencies unfolding on the ouskirts of Sydney. More than 50 fires continue to burn across Queensland.

Now, researchers from Western Sydney University and University of Wollongong are hoping that a new tool will make it much easier to predict fire risk in the future.

The team’s ‘Prescribed Burning Atlas’ is the most detailed look yet at the effectiveness of controlled burning for mitigating bushfire in Australia.

Effectiveness of controlled burns is presumed

Australian fire services carry out controlled or ‘prescribed’ burns in low fire risk months to reduce the amount of fuel built up in bushland.

Currently, fire agencies plan these burns years ahead of schedule, assessing a range of factors including land use, population density, vegetation and weather conditions. But until now, says Western Sydney’s Matthias Boer, the effectiveness of controlled burning in preventing wildfire has been presumed, rather than studied.

“It’s expensive to deploy resources for controlled burning, while the effectiveness in terms of risk reduction is still relatively poorly quantified,” says Boer.

Also: “We are now in uncharted territory” – Experts respond to bushfire crisis

“This project will allow agencies to take more informed decisions about how their management dollar can go furthest.”

Along with researchers from the University of Wollongong and the University of Melbourne, Boer is developing a computer tool that maps where controlled burning may be most effective.

“The end result is thousands of simulated wildfires, which vary in size, intensity and impact, depending on all these factors. It’s our job to make sense of all of this,” explains researcher Hamish Clarke.

Bushfires in NSW are still burning. An estimated 20 per cent of the Blue Mountains Heritage Area has been impacted. Credit: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

The ability to assess risk to life and property

The team has been able to produce risk estimates for a range of different outcomes, for instance how many houses would be lost in different conditions, or how effective controlled burning would be in different areas.

The project is also looking at how climate change may affect controlled burning, by simulating intensified hot and dry, high-wind weather conditions that are projected in some areas.

Also: Climate change will make firestorms more likely in southeastern Australia

The team is working with potential users of the Prescribed Burning Atlas, including major fire management agencies across Australia, and is planning to complete a prototype ready for testing in late 2019, with a national launch scheduled for 2020. End users are enthusiastic about the type of information the atlas will provide.

“The ability to quantify risk to life and property has the potential to help land managers to optimise burning strategies to achieve the best cost-benefits,” says Felipe Aires, Fire Science Interpretation Officer at the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

“Ultimately, we hope that the atlas will help fire managers tailor decisions about burning programmes to optimise risk reduction.”

The atlas is the first example of a fire risk reduction project being attempted on a nation-wide scale, says Boer, and the team’s approach could even be used to build similar tools overseas, including in the Mediterranean and the United States.

In Australia, one of the most catastrophic bushfire events was Black Saturday, which claimed the lives of 173 people. The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission which followed recommended a 5% annual controlled burning target of the state’s public land.

“Now we have a tool to objectively assess how much risk reduction can be achieved under this or other targets across the diversity of the Australian landscapes” says Boer.

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