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By Amy Edwards Dr Miguel Cruz 13 December 2021 3 min read

We’ve been working collaboratively on predicting bushfire behaviour for almost 50 years.

CSIRO was the first agency internationally to link an increase in bushfire weather severity to climate change in 1988. Australia will face continued extreme fire weather into the future. So, our research into bushfires and climate change is more important than ever.

Our world-class scientists, in our Bushfire Behaviour and Risks team, recently teamed up with the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS). Together, they have developed Australia's most advanced model for predicting the speed and spread of a wildfire burning in eucalypt forest.

Dr Miguel Cruz is the project leader of the new model, known as the Vesta Mark 2.

We chatted to Miguel about why the tool will help save property and lives into the future. And how the Black Summer 2019-20 bushfires in Australia impacted his work.

What's your role at CSIRO?

I am a principal research scientist. In my role with the Bushfire Behaviour and Risks team, I mainly work on the development of mathematical models that describe fire behaviour. I conduct fire behaviour modelling of various complexity, starting with simplified descriptions of fire dynamics.

These can be used to develop models with a direct application to support fire managers’ decision-making during wildfire events. Then we also conduct work aimed at developing complex models that are used in research contexts. The work I conduct also finds application in fire danger rating and fuel management.

What inspired you to become a bushfire research scientist?

I am forester by training. It became clear as a forestry student that one needs to understand fire dynamics and its relationship with ecosystem function and fire effects in order to manage forests sustainably. The early motivation to follow a career in fire research was to develop knowledge that could be used by end-users in their day-to-day forest and fire management related activities.

What makes the new Vesta model so special?

The latest Vesta model brings together a collection of real-world fire propagation datasets. It includes distinct modelling concepts developed by researchers over the last few years. And insights into fire dynamics that came from the collaborative work we conduct with fire suppression and land management agencies.

We were able to use all this knowledge to develop a sophisticated model. It allows the description of the potential velocity of a bushfire as it travels in the landscape over a broad range of conditions. But it also has superior accuracy to previous models.

How did the Australian bushfires 19/20 impact your work?

As the fire season unfolded in 2019/20 and the number of fires increased, we were able to work closely with the NSW RFS to support their fire spread prediction activities.

For researchers, this was quite a learning experience. Not only seeing first-hand how the models we developed in the past were used operationally, but also how they could be improved to meet user needs. We also witnessed levels of fire activity and severity that are rare. We had an immediate need to attempt to quantify and understand some of these events ‘before the trail got cold’.

How did the Black Summer bushfires improve Vesta?

Some of the work we conducted during the 2019/20 bushfire season was instrumental in the foundation of the latest Vesta model. It gave us a better understanding of the fire processes in the upper end of the fire severity scale. It also enhanced our understanding of the questions and problems fire agencies face. And showed us how the models we develop can most effectively help on the ground.

Outside of work, what do you enjoy?

Having a good time with the family. I like being outdoors, riding mountain bikes (downhill preferred), stand up paddle boarding (SUPing) and surfing. And when the winds are good, paragliding.

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