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By Alison Donnellan 3 February 2021 3 min read

Smoke from a bushfire in Arthurs Seat, Victoria.

Australia will develop a nationally consistent bushfire modelling and prediction capability under an agreement announced of February 4th between CSIRO’s Data61 and AFAC, the National Council for Fire and Emergency Services.

The partnership involves the development of Spark Operational, a cutting-edge bushfire simulation tool based on Data61’s Spark fire prediction platform. Fire and emergency service agencies across the nation will now apply state-of-the-art simulation science to produce predictions, statistics and visualisations of bushfire spread, as well as simulating hours of fire spread across a landscape in a matter of seconds. 

“Spark Operational will play a significant role in allowing our emergency response teams to effectively plan for and respond to fire emergencies in a variety of landscapes and climates,” explained AFAC CEO Stuart Ellis.

“It was identified as the best solution to use to help achieve a nationally consistent system that will take the nation to the next generation of firefighting intelligence, and ensure we are protecting as many lives and assets as possible across multiple scenarios, mitigating the dangers of bushfire.”

Spark Operational will be fed real-time data on a 24/7 basis from sources across Australia including Bureau of Meteorology satellites, says Data61’s lead Spark Operational researcher Dr Mahesh Prakash. 

“Spark Operational will enable a nationally consistent approach to fire prediction modelling tools, with all the data streams from various locations across the country also advancing bushfire science and research.” 

Therefore, Spark Operational can be used in a location agnostic manner. It’s been created using the latest modular and scalable software technologies so fire scientists can develop multiple models that are applicable for the different fuel and landscape types, which can then be brought into the Spark ecosystem to be used at a national or continental scale.” 

One of Spark Operational’s biggest draw-cards is its ease of use, says Dr Prakash, with users who don’t have deep technical computer and software engineering skills able to use the platform successfully.

“When Spark Operational was presented to fire management agencies in California, they were pleased to learn users didn’t require advanced knowledge of coding or software engineering to operate the system.”

“In the future, Spark Operational could be used across the globe to prevent, prepare for and manage bushfires.”

Phase one of the technology’s implementation commenced in January 2021, with further developments ensuring it will become fully operational over the next three years.

With each phase of its implementation, Spark Operational will be grown and adapted into a tool that all agencies nationwide can tailor to specific landscapes and bushfire behaviour, enabling them to better predict – and thereby protect – local environments.

Spark Operational in action.

CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said the innovation built on decades of expertise.

“Our solutions from science have protected Australians from the threat of bushfires for over 70 years, from roadside fire danger signs to advanced burnover protection materials,” Dr Marshall said.

"But 2020 changed the game forever. So, we have changed our game too, by unleashing new science and technology to protect our firefighters and Australian communities.

“We believe this advanced system will help firefighters outthink fire, to anticipate its actions, and to get ahead of it, so they can beat it.

"Spark is a great example of combining environmental, digital and materials science and listening to Australia’s front-line responders to deliver a real-world solution that works for them.

“Spark is a cutting-edge platform, based on today’s breakthrough technology but built on a strong foundation of research into understanding and predicting the behaviour and spread of bushfires.”

Through a partnership with AFAC, Minderoo Foundation is supporting the development of Spark Operational as part of its Fire Shield Mission, which aims to detect and extinguish dangerous fires within an hour by 2025.

CEO of Minderoo’s Flood and Fire Resilience Initiative, Adrian Turner, said the development came at a critical time.

“The Black Summer Bushfires burned with devastating impact, in extremely dry fuels and at a scale that is rarely seen, driving extreme fire behaviour, which meant that the modelling was not able to accurately predict spread,” Mr Turner said.

“The experience last summer has highlighted the need for better decision support tools to help firefighters protect people and the environment.

“Fire services will be able to test this tool during this next fire season, and this pilot project is a critical step towards better supporting firefighter decisions across a full range of fuel types to inform the earlier detection of fires in the future.”

The creation of a nationally consistent bushfire modelling and prediction capability was recommended by CSIRO in a report to the Commonwealth Government last year.

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