Discovery questions current bushfire mitigation approach

Feb 02, 2012
Overhead image of intense channelling event, Bendora Dam, 18/1/03

( -- A new form of bushfire behavior, which can have a potentially catastrophic effect on the development of fires burning in rugged terrain, has been identified by a team of researchers from UNSW Canberra, the ACT Emergency Services Agency and ACT Territory and Municipal Services.

This fundamental scientific breakthrough introduces the important phenomenon - “fire channelling” - and its implications for bushfire suppression and management. Importantly, the research findings raise questions about the effectiveness of established mitigation practices, including fuel reduction burning and vegetation removal around houses.

The research was based on data collected during the January 2003 alpine fires in the ACT and NSW, combined with data collected by the researchers as part of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre’s HighFire Risk Project.

The research team found that intense fire spread could occur at right angles to the direction a fire would be expected to spread, with numerous spot fires then carrying the fire down-wind.  This fire spread was at odds with known forms of bushfire behaviour and was found to occur exclusively on steep slopes that face away from the wind (known as “lee-facing slopes”), where fire behavior would normally be milder.

“The overall result is the formation of extensive regions of active flaming, which can then trigger the formation of a firestorm,” said Dr. Jason Sharples from UNSW Canberra. “This provides a new understanding of what happened during the Canberra bushfires in January 2003.

“During the 2003 fires it was simply not known that a fire could behave in such a way,” said Mr Rick McRae from the ACT Emergency Services Agency, a co-author of the research. “As such it is important to recognise that improving the advice provided to the community during extreme bushfire events may require a protracted wait while the science progresses.”

The research also provides new insights into Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires in 2009.

“One of the likely consequences of the unusual fire behavior is the mass production of embers, such as was seen on Black Saturday. The ember storm that impacted Canberra suburbs in January 2003 is another case in point.  It is important to now re-evaluate the way that fuel reduction burning is applied in order to minimize ember production,” said Dr. Sharples.

 “The phenomenon is not unique to Australia. Indeed, there have been a number of wildfires around the globe in which ‘fire channelling’ is likely to have played a part and we are now working with a number of international collaborations. With the prospect of more frequent extreme bushfires due to the effects of climate change, it is important that bushfire management agencies learn about unusual effects like ‘fire channelling’,” he said.

To help prevent fire-fighters being injured or killed, the research team is now working on incorporating the research findings into the national bushfire training curriculum.

“Another outcome of the research is demonstrating the importance of carefully observing wildfires, including the use of sophisticated remote sensing technology. A lot of the science coming from recent wildfires would not have happened unless fire agencies and others put these systems in place in the lead-up to the season,” said Mr. McRae.

The research has been published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

Explore further: Pact with devil? California farmers use oil firms' water

Related Stories

Forest logging increases risk of mega fires

Sep 12, 2011

Logging in Victoria’s mountain ash forests is increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfires, according to an expert from The Australian National University.

Black Friday provides bushfire answers

Jan 18, 2012

Clearing vegetation close to houses is the best way to reduce impacts of severe bushfires, according to a team of scientists from Australia and the USA who examined house loss after as a result of Black Saturday, when a series ...

Gum trees fire up history revision

Feb 16, 2011

( -- Australian bushfires appeared 50 million years earlier than previously thought and probably contributed to transforming the landscape from rainforest into the country’s dry eucalypt forests ...

Ecologist: La Nina one major cause for Texas wildfires

Apr 27, 2011

( -- About 1.5 million acres of Texas has burned this year, and a Texas Tech University plant ecologist said a natural weather event called La Nina has much of the blame for the recent rash of wildfires.

Future fire -- still a wide open climate question

Jul 07, 2011

How the frequency and intensity of wildfires and intentional biomass burning will change in a future climate requires closer scientific attention, according to CSIRO's Dr Melita Keywood.

Recommended for you

Gimmicks and technology: California learns to save water

Jul 03, 2015

Billboards and TV commercials, living room visits, guess-your-water-use booths, and awards for water stinginess—a wealthy swath of Orange County that once had one of the worst records for water conservation ...

Cities, regions call for 'robust' world climate pact

Jul 03, 2015

Thousands of cities, provinces and states from around the world urged national governments on Thursday to deliver a "robust, binding, equitable and universal" planet-saving climate pact in December.

Will climate change put mussels off the menu?

Jul 03, 2015

Climate change models predict that sea temperatures will rise significantly, including in the tropics. In these areas, rainfall is also predicted to increase, reducing the salt concentration of the surface ...

As nations dither, cities pick up climate slack

Jul 02, 2015

Their national governments hamstrung by domestic politics, stretched budgets and diplomatic inertia, many cities and provinces have taken a leading role—driven by necessity—in efforts to arrest galloping ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.