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EXPERT REACTION: Australia needs a national bushfire monitoring agency

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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. They found the area burnt was 24 per cent smaller than estimates compiled from government fire records, although they say, nothing like these bushfires has been seen since the mid-nineteenth century. They say state and territory governments, and even agencies within states, have different approaches for gathering and storing essential information about bush fires. This worked fine when fires were smaller, they add, but those in the 2019–20 season crossed multiple state borders. They argue the 2019–20 fires marked a historic crossroads and that a national crisis of this magnitude, requires a national solution.

Journal/conference: Nature

Link to research (DOI): 10.1038/d41586-020-02306-4

Organisation/s: University of Tasmania, The Australian National University, University of Wollongong, Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC

Funder: N/A

Media release

From: Springer Nature

Australia needs a dedicated bushfire monitoring agency to provide the coherent information necessary to manage and mitigate fires in a cost-effective and evidence-based way, argue David Bowman and colleagues in a Comment piece in this week’s Nature. The 2019–20 Australian bushfires destroyed thousands of homes and millions of hectares of vegetation. The crisis exposed the nation’s fire monitoring system as being unfit for purpose. Precise real-time information about the area burnt and the intensity of the fires was not available when it was needed, the authors write.

Currently, individual states and territories record bushfires in different ways. This results in data gaps and inconsistencies that make it difficult to accurately assess the fires’ scale and environmental impacts. Through an analysis of satellite data related to the burning that was set in the context of historical fire records, the authors find that the area engulfed was 24% smaller than estimates compiled from government fire records. Even so, they contend, nothing like these bushfires has been seen since the mid-nineteenth century. The fires eclipsed the worst-case scenarios designed to prepare agencies and communities.

“We’re navigating uncharted territory without a compass,” the authors write. “The 2019–20 fires marked a historic crossroads. A national crisis of this magnitude, which will probably happen again, requires a national solution”, they conclude

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Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Andrew Gissing is an emergency management expert with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and General Manager of Resilience at Risk Frontiers

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements is examining how Australia can enhance its disaster risk reduction efforts. There are opportunities to improve information sharing between organisations to enhance risk knowledge and operational decision making.  

Australia should improve its bushfire rapid detection capabilities, so that fires can be identified and suppressed before they are able to spread under dangerous bushfire conditions. Given increasing risks due to climate change and population growth Australia requires an ambitious national blueprint on future disaster management capabilities.

Last updated: 12 Aug 2020 2:24pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Brian Oliver leads the Respiratory Molecular Pathogenesis Group at the University of Technology Sydney and the Woolcock Institute.

I agree that now it is time to move towards a centralised response and co-ordination of efforts in terms of future planning and managing the health effects of all forms of air pollution including bushfires.  

The authors have focused upon the data monitoring aspects of bushfires, but even considering bushfires I think that this needs to be considered in its entirety.  

Without centralisation and, more importantly, federal resource allocation, each state has no alternative to manage bushfires with the resources at hand.    

Last updated: 12 Aug 2020 12:37pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Associate Professor Michael Fletcher is a Biogeographer and the Assistant Dean (Indigenous) at The University of Melbourne

Bowman et al. highlight the disparate ways Australian states and agencies collect and analyse fire data, making a strong and logical case for the centralisation of fire monitoring under a national fire monitoring agency.

A nationally consistent approach to monitoring the extent and severity and impact of catastrophic bushfires is crucial for guiding efforts at mitigation and post-fire response.

While this goal is no doubt essential, the authors gloss over some of the real challenges that face such efforts.

Prime among them are the limitations of deriving consistent data on fire area and severity from satellite imagery across the complex array of vegetation types in Australia. Satellite imagery has been enormously effective in mapping fires in the tropical savanna biome of northern Australia, but these systems are very different to the temperate Eucalypt forests that, arguably, present the greatest risk for Australia’s firey future.

This problem is not insurmountable, but calibrating satellite data against actual fire data will require a concerted scientific effort if such a nationalised approach is to work.

I also caution against defunding or moving away from independent assessments of fire area, severity and impacts in favour of a national approach. Such independent datasets provide a critical test of the accuracy and veracity of large nationally-managed monitoring systems.

Finally, 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.

Last updated: 12 Aug 2020 12:36pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
David Bowman is Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, and Director of the Fire Centre Research Hub in the School of Natural Sciences, The University of Tasmania

Good data is essential for evidence-based bushfire policy - the current ad hoc data means there is needless confusion. 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. Currently, it is difficult to differentiate important causes of the fire crisis from firmly held opinions with limited data to support them. A national facility could fill a critical gap by providing reliable and consistent data on bushfire causes, extent, and environmental, social and economic impacts, including the cost of bushfire fuel management and fire-fighting.

Last updated: 12 Aug 2020 11:36am
Declared conflicts of interest:
Prof Bowman is lead author of the comment article.
Richard Woods is Operations Manager for the ACT Rural Fire Service in Canberra

Bushfire/wildfire data capture and sharing in real-time has been enhanced in recent years in Australia through the use of aircraft-based technology. This has assisted in addressing delays in State and Territory agencies relaying the more immediate situation, and the challenges posed by the often rapidly-changing fire progression under changing fire conditions (on an hourly and daily basis). The bigger picture of what is happening nationally is a model used in Canada (Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre) and the USA (National Interagency Fire Centre). Both countries have a more nationally-focussed approach, relying on information from their respective State and Federal Agencies on fire status and the co-ordination of cross-state/Federal assistance."

Last updated: 12 Aug 2020 11:34am
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Jim McLennan is a Bushfire Safety Researcher and Adjunct Professor at the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University

It would be difficult to advance a plausible argument against the proposal for a national database as proposed by the authors. Historically, response to natural hazard emergencies, and associated data collection, has been a matter for individual states and territories. However, future increases in hazard frequency and severity, driven by global warming, mean that weather-related hazards require a national response capability, and the basis for this must be an appropriate national database.

Last updated: 12 Aug 2020 11:32am
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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