RPS bushfire fuel load and risk maps could make the difference this season

This time last year, Australia was already in the grip of one of the worst fire seasons ever.

As communities and authorities prepare for the coming season, RPS believes that new ways of identifying fire risks could provide the data needed to better plan prescribed burning and prepare fire response activities. 

One of the major challenges that authorities face in predicting bush fire risk is how difficult it is to calculate fuel loads over wide areas where the environment is continually changing. Such calculations are vital in predicting fire behaviour and understanding the vulnerability of properties and critical infrastructure assets close to areas with elevated fuel load.

It has traditionally been very difficult for land managers, fire agencies and councils to access reliable quantitative information. Field-based methods are used for assessing variations in forest structure and fuel loads – a time consuming and costly approach that can’t be done with the regularity required.

Research has established that visual assessment and time-since-burnt methodologies are often inaccurate and fail to provide confidence for authorities. And while satellite imagery supports us to assess specific characteristics like vegetation dryness and health, this technology doesn’t help to identify vegetation fuel load.

Spatial information to support fire authorities

Last spring, before the catastrophic bushfire season that was 2019-20, RPS had already turned its attention to this complex, long-term problem facing the bushfire management industry.  

Applying our digital innovation process to the issue, specialists from our bushfire planning, light detection and ranging (LiDAR) aerial mapping, volunteer fire services, ecology, surveying and planning teams came together to combine expertise and develop a new data collection and assessment methodology. With independent involvement from academics and input from various fire authorities along the way, our team developed and refined tests and models over several iterations using an agile development approach.

Mapping fuel loads within an area of the Blue Mountains/Western Sydney fringe in 3D using LiDAR technology, we were able to test how new solutions could aid authorities to identify fuel loads quickly and accurately in areas that are typically difficult to assess, and use this information to visualise extreme bushfire risk zones. The resulting technical data was scientifically validated in three ways, including the surveying of more than 100 ground points and visual validation of fire behaviour against prediction during a hazard burn.

Visualising bushfire risks

RPS methodology helps identify and visualise areas of elevated fuel load that pose a high risk to nearby properties and infrastructure at the wildland urban interface. 

RPS bushfire risk mapping uses LiDAR technology to identify forested areas with high fuel load close to properties and infrastructure

Risks mapped = risks managed

RPS’ methodology allows fuel load data and fire risks areas to be displayed on a map and integrated with fire modelling for properties in close proximity to identified risks. The images represent a new option for authorities to visualise data and model risks. 

Better fuel load identification means it is easier to visually identify areas at high risk. This lends evidence to better inform prescribed burning activities and building social licence for proactive management activities through engagement with the community. This new approach also provides reliable data to guide how fire authorities respond during fire events, including where aerial and ground suppression efforts can be directed and prioritised.

In terms of local planning, our risk modelling can aid local councils to balance urban fringe development objectives with green corridor management and bushfire risk mitigation, while assisting them to identify critical infrastructure and important wildlife habitats to protect.

What's next?

As we look backwards at one of the most destructive seasons on record and forward to the bushfire season that’s just over the horizon, our team is looking forward to bringing a new, data-driven, scientifically-validated bushfire risk mapping capability that can help protect Australian communities and aid decision making for authorities.

If you’d like to know more about this project and the data insights now possible, please contact any of our team members below or visit our bushfire services page.

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