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By  Justin Leonard 28 June 2023 5 min read

Key points

  • Justin Leonard is an engineer who leads our Bushfire Adaptation research.
  • He surveys the aftermath of fires, runs experiments to discover how houses and fire trucks experience fire, and advises on building design.
  • His career highlight is being part of the development of fire truck protection systems that have protected crews caught in bushfires.

It was 1983 and I stood in my family home in Melbourne. Ash was falling out of the sky. I was safe and the fires were no longer active. It was just the smoke and the smell which told you something really large had unfolded in the landscape.

I remember the weather, how truly extreme it was. We had a week of warm days and nights followed by a burning 45-degree day. Winds sped through at more than 100 kilometres per hour. Fuelled by a severe drought and extreme weather, some 180 fires had ravaged parts of South Australia and Victoria. The Ash Wednesday fires were the deadliest our country had seen, until Black Saturday in 2009.

At the time, it was unsettling for society. It was one of those big things people knew they could not manage or control. We could only address the aftermath. We had no control of the fire itself.

I was taught by my mentors to experience the bushfire from the perspective of an observer.

How to survive a bushfire

I’m currently the Research Leader in Bushfire Adaptation. I’ve worked on everything from creating bushfire planning risk maps to developing novel building design solutions.

I joined CSIRO straight out of university, with a degree in mechanical engineering under my belt. My father and my brother were both mechanics and I had thought I was destined to end up in the automotive industry.

My early years with this organisation were really formative. I was lucky to be working with and being mentored by some really amazing researchers at the top of their fields. They focused on what it's like to experience the bushfire from the perspective of an observer. And the observer didn’t have to be a person; it could be a house or a fire truck trying to survive the roaring flames.

Throughout my career, I’ve stayed invested in that experiential perspective. I think it’s what makes our research group so special.

First Nations people understood that fire plays a key role in the health of our ecosystems.

First Nations perspectives

One of the things which makes our situation in Australia unique is recognising fire is a part of nature.

Some of our most counterproductive strategies of fire exclusion go back to colonial influences. These were shaped by attitudes to fire from very different places. We know now that fearing fire or proactively trying to eliminate fire from the landscape can be counterproductive. Taking that approach only means that we'll have to contend with graver consequences for our communities and our environment down the road.

Australia’s First Nations people understood fire plays a very formative role in the landscape and in the health of our ecosystems. To a great degree, they embrace fires as a powerful and effective tool for caring for Country. This perspective is needed to tackle future challenges.

Due to climate change, we are now facing more severe and devastating fires. We have to be proactive rather than reactive. If we don’t plan and adapt both our attitudes towards fire and the ways we live with it, there will be an ever-increasing cost to society.

After a bushfire has passed

Going out and doing post-bushfire surveys has always been one of the most interesting and informative tools in our kit.

From the very first year I joined CSIRO, every time a major loss event occurred, we would go out into the field to study the aftermath. We spoke with people who had survived the fires and inspected infrastructure and vehicles that did and didn’t survive. This proved to be one of our most crucial strategies in understanding the problems and where the solutions might lie.

Ash Wednesday was one of the first examples where the group I had joined had done that kind of post-analysis. Going forward, I took it on. We’ve managed to study every major fire from then on. This has allowed us to build the next generation of tools and systems and involve more communities and citizen science initiatives to develop professional surveys.

The human element

I’m an engineer and my strengths are maths, chemistry and physics. My place of comfort is being able to qualify and query what a bushfire can and cannot do. However, the more I’ve looked at the problem, the more obvious it is bushfires are actually a socio-technical problem.

There’s the fire itself, then the landscape, the weather, the buildings, and, of course, human beings. The latter are often the hardest to fully understand. Shaped by this complex combination of elements and events unfolding at once, bushfires contain an element of mystery.

At our Mogo Bushfire Burnover Facility, we run many experiments. There’s a magic when the fire is kept captive. It’s powerful and beautiful without being too dangerous. We can study how things like houses and fire trucks experience large scale fire exposures.

Fire risk management is not just about the weather or the landscape. It’s equally about human behaviour and risk perception. For example, advising how to build houses to be fire resistant doesn’t mean houses will be built and maintained that way. We need to educate and inspire homeowners, builders, councils and more. To do this we need more than just engineers, which is why our team is multidisciplinary.

We can't afford to ignore the human element.

A legacy of lives saved

I just marked 30 years with CSIRO. My career has been filled with such profound impacts it’s been rewarding beyond my expectations.

One of the highlights has been working on the development of fire truck protection systems. These are meant as a last resort for our brave crews to activate to save themselves if they were caught in the path of bushfire with no way to escape.

Our fire truck protection systems have been put to the test.

It’s one of the benefits of such a long career. I’ve been able to help design these systems, see them implemented across vehicle fleets, then have those trucks actually go through bushfires with crews within them. We’re so happy to report a 100 per cent success rate. It’s just incredible.

It validates the robustness of our research and designs. However, it’s getting to meet people who wouldn’t have been around if not for our work is life affirming. There’s such joy in shaking those hands.

I’m aware now of the kind of legacy I can set up, which is not so different to the way I was inspired by my mentors when I first joined CSIRO.

We can change the way multidisciplinary teams approach research. It’s my goal to build a really great and effective group of diverse experts who can save lives and protect our environment. I want that to be my legacy. And when I do leave CSIRO, I know this team will continue to do the work.

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