It’s time for a national approach to monitoring bushfires

  Last updated August 17, 2020 at 1:21 pm


Experts warn that we are “navigating uncharted territory without a compass” due to a lack of central national body for essential bushfire information.

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Firefighters battle bushfires at Pechey, Queensland in November 2019. Credit: QFES/Facebook

Australia needs a dedicated national bushfire monitoring agency, argue Australian experts, after finding that the mix of state and territory government fire records poorly estimated the size of the area engulfed by the Black summer fires.

Writing in the journal Nature, they warn that we are “navigating uncharted territory without a compass” without a central national system for gathering and storing essential information about bushfires.

Also: The Australian bushfires were a fiery wake-up call

Lead author David Bowman from the University of Tasmania used satellite records to map the extent of the recent Black Summer fires and found they had burnt an area 25 per cent smaller than the area estimated using state-based data.

“Knowing the extent of bushfire is a basic parameter, yet there are widely varying numbers because of lack of agreement about mapping approaches to area burned and mapping of vegetation types,” he says.

A consistent approach to monitoring bushfires is crucial to guide efforts

Australian state and territory governments record bushfires in a variety of ways. In the vast tropical savannahs and arid grasslands, fire mapping relies on satellite assessments, but in more temperate forests, fire edges are mapped by ground crews, aerial surveys and satellite analysis.

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A nationally consistent approach to monitoring bushfires could help guide efforts to mitigate bushfire risk. Credit: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

Associate Professor Michael Fletcher from the University of Melbourne, who was not an author on the study, says that a nationally consistent approach to monitoring bushfires including their size, severity and impact is crucial for guiding efforts at mitigation and post-fire response.

However, he cautions about glossing over some of the real technical challenges that such efforts face.

“Satellite imagery has been enormously effective in mapping fires in the tropical savanna biome of northern Australia, but these systems are very different from the temperate Eucalypt forests that, arguably, present the greatest risk for Australia’s firey future,” he says.

Bushfires are predicted to increase in frequency and severity – we need to act now

But even with these hurdles, Fletcher agrees there is a need for a national approach, and suggested that just looking at bushfire monitoring may not go far enough.

“It could be argued that the solution needs to reach beyond a simple national monitoring agency, to an independent and nationally-coordinated agency aimed at informing government about prediction, mitigation and monitoring of fire in Australia.”

With climate change predicted to increase bushfire frequency and severity, other experts agreed the time was right for a national approach.

Deeper: Bushfires are increasing in size and frequency

“Australia requires an ambitious national blueprint on future disaster management capabilities,” says Andrew Gissing, from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Gissing was not involved in the Nature article.

As another summer approaches, the impacts of Black Summer fires are still being felt, and the researchers say the 2019–20 fires marked a historic crossroads.

“A national crisis of this magnitude, which will probably happen again, requires a national solution,” the authors conclude.

You can read the full expert comments here.

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About the Author

Lyndal Byford
Lyndal is the Director of News and Partnerships at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days turning complex science papers into tasty morsels to help news journalists cover science. Lyndal has an Honours Degree in Biotechnology from Flinders University and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication from the Australian National University. She has spent the last 20 years communicating science in a range of settings including science museums, within the pharmaceutical industry and in media relations both here and in the UK. Lyndal regularly speaks about science on ABC Radio National and 2CC in Canberra. Lyndal was also a member of Inspiring Australia’s Science and the Media Expert working group for the Federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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