The shape of a perfect storm: Saving lives by predicting firestorms

January 9, 2019, Freshscience
A fully developed pyrocumulus cloud, formed from the smoke plume of the Grampians fire in February 2013. Credit: Randall Bacon

Firestorms are a nightmare for emergency services and anyone in their path. They occur when a bushfire meets a 'perfect storm' of environmental conditions and creates a thunderstorm.

Dr. Rachel Badlan and Associate Professor Jason Sharples are part of a team of experts from UNSW Canberra and ACT Emergency Services that has found the shape of a is an important factor in whether it will turn into a firestorm.

Fires that form expansive areas of active flame, rather than spreading as a relatively thin fire-front, are more likely to produce higher smoke plumes and turn into firestorms, the researchers found.

This finding is being used to underpin further development of a for firestorms. The model was trialed in the 2015 and 2016 fire seasons by the ACT Emergency Services Agency and the NSW Rural Fire Service, and now forms part of the national dialogue around extreme bushfire development.

The model will help identify the most dangerous fires and better determine the best deployment of fire resources, saving more lives and restricting the damage when firestorms strike.

"Thunderstorms generated by the heat from a fire are the most dangerous manifestation of a bushfire. These firestorms create their own weather with lightning, , and even tornadoes that spread fire in multiple directions. These ingredients make them impossible for firefighters to put out," says Rachel, who is a postdoctoral fellow at UNSW Canberra.

A fully developed pyrocumulus cloud during the Grampians fire in February 2013. Credit: Randall Bacon
"Before this model, there was no way to predict which fires would become firestorms. Previous work attributes these firestorms solely to the total energy released by the fire, however, we have found the shape of a fire is a vital factor in the development of firestorms," Rachel says.

The team used advanced computer models to incorporate details of the environment (terrain, wind, and atmosphere) and the fire's shape, size and intensity, to determine how high the plume will be.

This information then tells the researchers about the potential for a fire to develop into a firestorm (known as a pyrocumulonimbus).

"With firestorms commonly occurring in Australia—more than 50 since 2001—and set to increase due to hotter and drier conditions, it's vital that fire managers can determine which fires are likely to transition into a firestorm so that evacuation may occur as early as possible," Rachel says.

A developing pyrocumulus during the Grampians fire in February 2013. Credit: Randall Bacon

Explore further: Firestorms: the bushfire / thunderstorm hybrids we urgently need to understand

More information: Conference paper: The role of deep flaming in violent pyroconvection. www.researchgate.net/publicati … olent_pyroconvection

Related Stories

Discovery questions current bushfire mitigation approach

February 2, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- 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 ...

NASA satellite shows California shrouded in smoke

July 31, 2018

NASA's Aqua satellite captured this natural color image of the fires in California and the resultant smoke that has shrouded the state and swept eastward as far as Salt Lake City and still moving. Dangerous and deadly fires ...

NASA image: Selway complex and Johnson Bar fires in Idaho

September 15, 2014

Two fires are seen burning in this satellite image taken by the Aqua satellite on September 11, 2014. The Selway complex of fires had been previously reported located 30 miles west of Darby, MT. It appears a new fire may ...

Raging fires in California creating havoc for the state

July 31, 2018

From last until today the Carr fire has consumed 12,000 more acres for a total of 110,154 acres and is 27% contained. The number of residences destroyed overnight rose by 161, commercial buildings by 1, and outbuildings by ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...

0 comments

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.