April 20, 2023

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Can technology consign mega-fires to the past?

The emerging field of bushfire intelligence comprises a nexus of cloud-based data analysis, AI, machine learning and other emerging technologies alongside the knowledge of local and regional fire agencies.

This article was originally published on governmentnews.com.au

Author: Rob James

The evolution of bushfire intelligence technology means we may no longer need to face the threat of mega-fires, writes Rob James.

My office is in a former firehouse. Located right in the middle of Sydney, long ago this would have been an active operation, with many more all over the city.

Today, abandoned fire houses are being turned into commercial spaces where fire prevention technologies are being developed.

What if we could use technology to eradicate catastrophic bushfires, in the same way that advances in fire-safe construction helped prevent a repeat of urban conflagrations like the blaze that gutted London in 1666?

This may seem unlikely when we consider the vast devastation and large-scale wildfires have wreaked throughout the world.

Vast devastation

Last year massive wildfires in the Siberian taiga claimed 17 million hectares, not only blocking the sun in towns and cities thousands of kilometers away, but sending smoke up to the North Pole for the first time in recorded history. In California, 10 of the 20 largest wildfires since 1950 have occurred 2020-2021, with 2020’s August Complex becoming that nation’s first gigafire (gigafire = one million acres, or about 404,685 hectares) since 1988. In Australia, the 2019 bushfires killed or displaced nearly three billion animals, according the WWF Australia.

But one factor these events have in common is that they occurred in the absence of a well-established and integrated digital framework –specifically bushfire intelligence.

Bushfire intelligence

As noted by the Royal Commission report on natural disaster arrangements, comprehensive resilience planning, including intelligence, is critical to facing future natural disasters effectively.

There is vast potential for such resilience support within the emerging field of bushfire intelligence, which comprises a nexus of cloud-based data analysis, AI, machine learning and other emerging technologies alongside the knowledge of our local and regional fire agencies.

Up to and including the Black Summer, Australia’s fireys have done yeoman’s service relying on whiteboards, their own institutional experience, and a seasoned yet digitally fragmented operating environment. But amazingly, little else in the way of digitised informational integration.

Bushfire Intelligence leverages the ability to sift through terabytes of data from historical records, wind measurements, real-time field data and social media report,s and funnel them through bushfire prediction models to front-line responders who need the data as quickly and as actionably as possible.

All of this data can be stored on the cloud, and it can come from brand-new sources, such as IoT-enabled devices, and be channeled to where it needs to go. Remote connectivity allows not only for humans to be informed, but for drones and robots to be enlisted in the fight.

Spatial data availability provides more precise insights to be gleaned in real time. Instead of seeing what the fire front looked like eight hours ago as a result of delays getting the aerial data to the people on the ground, the people on the ground can get it near instantaneously. And that’s just one outcome.

Advanced data

The main reason modern weather forecasting failed as often as it succeeded, was because of the relatively low quality of data. Today, advanced technologies like weather satellites, radiosondes, and doppler radar allow the Bureau of Meteorology to accurately forecast the temperature 24 hours into the future almost 90 per cent of the time.

The bottleneck for all of this is the human element. If the NSW Government can commit to fully funding the 76 recommendations from its Bushfire Inquiry, it will provide a model for other governments in Australia and around the world.

Applying the predictive models already at our fingertips alongside bushfire intelligence, and enlisting players from government, education, science and fire agencies themselves to design and implement solutions, will vastly improve the odds against the bushfires.

If we work together, harnessing the best that technology and human beings can deliver, we can do the presently unthinkable: make the catastrophic bushfire as much a relic of the past as the firehouse on every city block is today.

Rob James is the former CIO/CTO of Qantas and Vodafone and current managing director of Firestory