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Fire in the outskirts

The challenge

Climate change is making bushfire season longer and more intense and the trend of Australians moving to urban outskirt communities is leaving more people more exposed than ever. We can't stop bushfires but can we learn to live with them?

In this article

  • How climate change, combined with the increasing number of Australians looking for a 'tree-change', is increasing our exposure to bushfires.
  • Examples of how communities around the world are dealing with bushfires.
  • How modern data collection and more robust fire modelling techniques can help us deliver new fire management services and create more resilience for urban-fringe communities.

Bushfires are a reality of Australian living. In 2003, bushfires lit up the Australian Capital Territory. Unable to predict the fire’s path, authorities had no choice but to allow the fire to burn its course. One week later, the flames reached the outskirts of Canberra, engulfing the city’s water supply and sewage treatment system as well as many hundreds of houses. The 2003 fires affected the population for years to come and we’ve seen many more fires across the country since that time.

“Events like this are only going to become more frequent and intensify with climate change,” says Laura Elbourne-Binns, a fire engineer at Arup’s Melbourne office.

Laura is part of a global research project investigating wildfire modelling with the aim of pulling this knowledge back into Arup’s risk and planning teams to help us build more resilient communities along Australia’s urban rural interface. It’s an issue that becomes increasingly relevant as our populations spread from the cities and toward outer suburbs, or seek a “tree change” to live in urban fringe or semi-rural areas..

In their pursuit of best practice, Laura and the team have looked at cases of urban fringe bushfires within Victoria as well as overseas. Leveraging Arup’s global networks they’ve spoken to professionals in Europe and the United States. In the face of minimal data to build and validate models, the Arup group have sought out prospective collaborators with whom to collect and aggregate data.

The collaboration outreach paid dividends. Fire scientists are cataloguing the burn-rate of different types of vegetation. Drone-pilots are able to collect aerial images of terrain, which can then be used to classify regions by topography as well as climate and wind conditions. 

And all this data can be plugged back into wildfire modelling software, such as CSIRO’s SPARK. Coupled with our built-environment expertise, this will allow us to better to quantify the risk for our communities.

Resilient Resources

Many Australians are  looking for a “sea change” to a coastal property of a “tree change” to an inland property for which bushfire hazards can be very real.

The rising cost and pace of living in the city is pushing some people to move to regional and urban fringe areas at a faster rate than ever before. Along with this move to a rural urban interface comes an increased risk of fires affecting communities and infrastructure, exacerbated by climate change. 

Fire seasons have become both longer lasting and more severe, putting more people—and property—at risk more than ever before.

“We see potential for a predictive tool—where we could look at the risk to property from an insurance perspective or a land management perspective. Or there could be a real-time aspect where we can look at a fire that has occurred and we want to know how it’s moving and where the most at risk people or infrastructure are.”

“What we’ve seen is that there’s real potential for Arup to work in this space,” Laura says. This includes determining how fires start, and how they move across the land to give clients insights into how to manage existing buildings and infrastructure projects in high risk areas. 

It also means enabling our Risk and Planning teams to provide better advice on how bushfires might affect a new building, infrastructure or community planning project, and what fire prevention strategies might be most effective. 

Laura emphasises that the biggest impact will be made through collaborating with others, particularly those already pursuing data collection and modelling. Fire is a global issue. Arupians from the U.S., Europe, and the U.K., all regions historically affected by wildfires, have contributed to the project. “Collaboration can make any key learning from Arup a lot stronger,” Laura says, “We can really help communities build resilience.”

Translating Technology

The impacts of bushfires punctuate Australian history. There are reports tallying hectares burned, lives lost, and property damaged that date back to the 1700s. Very little has been recorded about how and where these fires have started and how they spread. “A historic lack of data can make validating a model quite difficult,” says Laura Elbourne-Binns.

"The potential outcome of this research is looking at how we might use information and predict how fires might start and then move across the land, and apply that to our client’s portfolios of building or infrastructure projects."


A potential outcome of the research is a greater understanding of how fire is being modelled globally. “Fire is a global problem,” Laura says. “It affects all communities, whether it’s a bushfire or a building fire.”

These practices can then be tailored to our building and infrastructure projects. But first, robust models need to be built. Using machine learning, Laura and the team are looking at how new methods of documentation, like aerial footage captured by drones can be analysed and classified with respect to vegetation burn rates and topography. This kind of analysis can then be refined to the specifics of our client’s portfolios. What kind of vegetation is in the surrounding area? What are the local climate and wind conditions? 

Laura points to the opportunities for collaboration in the space. A growing interest in bushfire management globally will allow Arup to forge partnerships, and to add a layer of our own knowledge of the built environment to the global conversation.

Findings

  • Research projects like this can help us build predictive tools to look at risk from an insurance or land management perspective.
  • The data and technical capability exists to build a real-time warning platform capable of providing updates on where an active fire might move.
  • This project reminded us that shared problems need shared solutions. Working with colleagues at home and abroad will build a stronger shared knowledge bank in the prediction and prevention of wild fires.

This story was written by Jeff McAllister, as part of the Research Review. This series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.

Lead Arup Researcher

Laura Elbourne-Binns
Laura is an engineer in our Fire team in Melbourne.

Ask Laura about

  1. How fire modelling works and how new sources of data can be used to make our models more accurate
  2. How the outputs of this modelling can be fed into predictive tools like real-time warning platforms or land-management tools
  3. How we're communicating with teams around the world to share best practice fire management approaches and collectively build community resilience

LEAD Partner RESEARCHER

Research TEAM

David
Graham
David is leads our Fire team in Melbourne.
Peter
Johnson
Peter is an Arup Fellow and works with our fire team in Melbourne.
Maria
Theodori
Maria is an engineer in our Fire team in New York.

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