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By  Justin Leonard Amy Edwards 15 November 2023 3 min read

Key points

  • Finding better ways to protect fire crews is increasingly important as we face more extreme fire weather.
  • We have worked collaboratively for many years to consistently improve burnover protection systems for crew cabins in fire trucks.
  • Our burnover protection systems are now fitted as a standard requirement in all Victorian fire trucks.

Terrifying moments when flames can overrun and burn over a fire truck are called flashover or burnover.

While firefighters have strategies and operational procedures to minimise risk, these dangerous events still occur and can be fatal. Our research is helping firefighters survive these dire situations.

We have collaboratively developed burnover protection systems for crew-cabins in fire trucks for more than 20 years. These systems are now fitted as a standard requirement in all Victorian fire trucks. Fire departments in other states are also developing prototypes using this knowledge base.

Volunteer fire fighters from the North Warrandyte brigade of the Country Fire Authority practicing by the Yarra River in Warrandyte, with Isuzu fire trucks in 2015. These trucks have been fitted with crew protection from burnovers.

The road to crew protection from burnovers

Following some tragic burnovers in the late 1990s, the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) asked for our help. We worked with them to develop safety parameters for fire trucks and to test the effectiveness of modifications like water sprays and shielding.

We designed a series of 24 tests carried out on two fire tankers at the RFS’s Hot Test Fire Facility at Mogo in New South Wales (NSW). Our testing used a number of gas burners to simulate the approach of a bushfire front and the burnover of the fire trucks. This simulator used our detailed knowledge of fire front characteristics and behaviour to accurately recreate burnover conditions similar to a real bushfire. The simulator subjected the fire trucks to varying fire intensities while we recorded detailed measurements of radiation, temperature and toxic gases.

CSIRO testing of firefighting vehicles to support development of crew protection systems.

New and better crew protection systems for burnovers

The data we collected during the Mogo tests informed new and better prototypes for crew protection. We tested these prototypes using worst-case burnover conditions in the simulator.

Field experiments in Tumbarumba (NSW) and Brucknell Park (Victoria) further validated the systems. These forest burnovers provided additional confidence in both the protection system design and the exposure conditions achieved in the simulator.

Fire trucks have been fitted with key features to support safety and survival since 2006:

  • a ring of spray nozzles that deliver water over the vehicle's cabin
  • radiant heat shields or curtains for windows to block radiation from reaching the people in the cabin. These inclusions also provide an extra layer of protection if the windows break
  • water sprays to stop wheels and pumps catching alight
  • fire resistant covers for electrical, pumps, air intakes and air hoses.

The effectiveness of these new crew cabins was put to the test in a major way during the fire outbreak of 2009. During the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria, 12 fire trucks were impacted by fire and all their crews emerged safely with no loss of life. These protection systems continued to provide crews with increased safety in subsequent fires including the more recent 2019–2020 bushfires.

Bushfire science supporting the nation

Our crew protection system testing is another example of how controlled experiments, science and innovation is helping safeguard people. We also test and validate a wide range of other infrastructure to withstand bushfires including houses, power poles, fences, shelters and water tanks.

In 2021, we teamed up with Suncorp and other partners to create a prototype house that could survive the extreme events of a fire, tropical cyclone and flood.

Named One House, the project's researchers collaboratively chose materials and design principles that would enable the house to survive each of these extreme events – something never attempted before. Our researchers returned to the Mogo facility to "try to burn the house down" and run the bushfire testing. 

Improvements to crew cabins and houses helps build bushfire resilience as Australians face increased extreme fire weather into the future.

Watch how our bushfire researchers are preparing Australia for more extreme fire weather. 

Bushfire-resilience Transcript
[Image appears of an aerial view of a burning fire front]

Narrator: It’s hard to escape news headlines about bushfires.

[Image changes to show a burning fire front with billowing clouds of smoke]

These days it seems there are bushfires always burning somewhere.

[Image changes to show a firefighting helicopter dropping water down, and then the image changes to show blackened trees]

We’ve seen devastating reports from across the globe, from the Arctic to Canada, to Greece to Australia.

[Image changes to show a glowing bushfire at night]

The science speaks for itself.

[Image changes to show thick clouds of smoke above a bushfire, and then the image changes to show a close view of flames burning undergrowth]

Climate change is increasing bushfire risk through higher temperatures and dryer conditions. Bushfire seasons are commencing earlier and lasting longer.

[Image changes to show smoke blowing above a fire front, and then the image changes to show a close view of flames burning undergrowth and trees]

[Music plays and text appears: Heating Up, How can we make Australia more bushfire resilient?]

In this video we will explore how science is helping to tackle this increasing threat and how we’re helping communities build resilience and prepare.

[Image changes to show Dr Andrew Sullivan talking to the camera, and text appears: Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, High Fire Danger Days]

Dr Andrew Sullivan: What we’ve seen happening over the last probably two decades or so is a much greater frequency of what we would call, high fire danger days where if a fire was to occur, its behaviour is likely to be much more severe than it would be under moderate, more moderate conditions.

[Image changes to show Justin Leonard talking to the camera, and text appears: Justin Leonard, Research Leader, CSIRO, Taking off quicker than we’re even improving in its direction]

Justin Leonard: It feels like climate change is taking off quicker than we’re even improving in its direction. It really comes down to a question of how quickly we can wake up to that reality and proactively adapt.

[Image changes to show Andrew talking to the camera]

Dr Andrew Sullivan: My name’s Dr Andrew Sullivan. I’m a Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO based in Canberra and I’m the leader of the Bushfire Behaviour and Suppression Team.

[Camera zooms in a little on Andrew talking to the camera]

The forecast that we’ve seen come from the climate experts are that through the rest of this century up to 2100 there’s a greater chance of increased extreme fire weather and if that coincides with outbreaks of fires then we know that we’re going to end up with more extreme fires.

[Music plays and the image changes to show a landscape of burnt trees and the camera pans out, and text appears: So, how can we better prepare?]

[Image changes to show Justin talking to the camera, and then images move through of Justin posing on a Fire King truck, a rear view of a male looking at a bushfire simulation, and Justin talking]

Justin Leonard: Hi, I’m Justin Leonard. I work with CSIRO, and I guess the best description for myself is a bushfire domain expert, that’s focussing principally on what it’s like to experience a bushfire and that might be from a human perspective or from a perspective of a piece of infrastructure like a car or a house that needs to survive a bushfire.

[Music plays and images move through to show Justin and a male looking at a 4WD ute and talking together, and text appears: Naarm/Melbourne Vic]

[Image changes to show an aerial view of a fire front glowing at night]

The fire fronts like a large moving front of fire could have many shapes.

[Image changes to show Justin talking to the camera]

But in terms of thinking about a place in the landscape where a fire builds up and approaches and passes, that process of reaching and passing over a point is experienced like a burn over.

[Images move through to show tradesman working around a training facility shed, and text appears: Eurobodalla Rural Fire Service Training Facility, Mogo, NSW]

So, a lot of our colleagues in CSIRO actually study the fire front itself.

[Images move through to show a split screen with data and a smoky landscape, a burnover simulator, an area outside the training facility, personnel inside the training facility, and Justin talking to the camera, and text appears: Burnover Simulator]

We use all that kind of data and understanding to create a burnover simulator which gives us the convenience of being able to build something in place and then create a burnover simulation that pretty much mimics how it would have experienced a fire out in the bush.

[Sounds of a fire crackling can be heard, and the image changes to show a fire burning in the safe area outside the training facility, and text appears: Trial by fire – testing a ‘bushfire proof’ house design]

Fire Crew: 4.7, now I’m getting 5.0.

[Sounds of a fire crackling and roaring can be heard]

It’s starting on your face if you’re standing behind the window.

[Sounds of a fire crackling and roaring can be heard and the image shows the fire really picking up and the smoke entering the training facility area, and then the image changes to show a close view of the flames burning furiously]

Interior radiation, pressure 5KW, interior 4KW.

[Sounds of a fire crackling and roaring can be heard, and the image continues to show the fire gradually burning out next to the training facility shed, and text appears: We have also designed protection systems for crews in fire trucks]

[Image changes to show Justin talking to the camera]

Justin Leonard: Because this programme has been running for so long, we’ve actually had a number of significant fire events where the trucks with these systems fitted have actually been deployed under real fire conditions. In our Black Saturday fires in 2009, we had a number of actual burnovers at which in every case the defence systems that were built and validated using this work actually worked as they intended, and the crews survived each of those burnovers.

[Image continues to show Justin talking to the camera]

Well, a lot of our recent work now is actually creating definitions of how bad fires can be at any point in the landscape and that’s for the coming fire season.

[Image changes to show a green paddocks with sheep grazing in the foreground, and then images move through to show a large gum tree trunk, and a view looking down the hallway of a house]

But it’s also for the notion of a fire season most of the way through this century or to the end of this century, because when we think about planning to put houses in the landscape, those houses will last 50, 70, 100 years.

[Image changes to show an aerial view looking down on a landscape of scrub and paddocks near water]

So, it’s really having a notion of what fires will be like under more climate change going into the future and what they mean, houses need to be designed for.

[Music plays as image changes to show Andrew walking towards the camera and a roller door can be seen opening on a shed in the background, and text appears: Canberra, ACT, (Ngunnawal people)]

[Image changes to show a close view of Andrew talking to the camera]

Dr Andrew Sullivan: My team undertakes research work to develop the science and technology to better enable fire agencies and fire fighters working for those agencies to better understand and predict the behaviour of bushfires.

[Image changes to show Andrew posing for a photo outside the National Bushfire Behaviour Research Laboratory]

And so, we develop the systems that they use for predicting the speed and propagation of bushfires across the landscape.

[Image changes to show Andrew placing sticks and leaf matter inside a tin, and then the image changes to show Andrew passing a tray of sticks and leaf matter to a colleague]

So, basically what we are trying to do is to understand the factors that influence the behaviour of bushfires so that we can identify the conditions under which extreme fire behaviour is likely to occur

[Images move through to show flames burning through the sticks and leaf matter on the tray, a fire burning through undergrowth and trees, and Andrew talking to the camera]

and be able to predict the likely direction of spread of these bushfires so fire agencies and particularly firefighters have a better idea of where a fire is going to be so that they can better plan for the actual fighting of the fire and also identify when warnings need to be issued to the general public.

[Image continues to show Andrew talking to the camera]

There are a large number of factors that influence the behaviour of bushfires, but we can reduce those down to three main categories of variables.

[Image changes to show an aerial view of a scrubby, mountainous landscape, and the camera pans over the area, and text appears: Fuel/Vegetation, Weather, Topography]

They are the fuel or the vegetation in which a fire burns, the weather that drives the fire and the topography over which that fire spreads.

[New text appears: Fire Behaviour Triangle]

Those three components form what we call the Fire Behaviour Triangle.

[Image changes to show Andrew talking to the camera]

The thing is that a bushfire can occur in any vegetation at some time.

[Images move through to show four people in conversation in the bush, and then the camera zooms out to show the four people squatting in a circle talking]

What we can do is basically try to manage the vegetation through which these fires are going to burn.

[Image changes to show a grassy plant with dried tips, and a circle appears around the plant]

And that brings us to about the only factor out of the three components in the Fire Behaviour Triangle that we’ve got any control over which is the vegetation itself.
[Image changes to show a side view of Andrew talking, and then the image changes to show a diagram of the Pyrotron wind tunnel, and text appears: Pyrotron]

We’ve built a very large and horizontal combustion wind tunnel called the Pyrotron which is the photo behind me.

[Images move through to show a diagram of a Vertical Wind Tunnel, a burning firebrand being released in the vertical wind tunnel, and the firebrand travelling up the tunnel, and text appears: Vertical Wind Tunnel]

We have also built an 11-metre-tall vertical wind tunnel that allows us to study other aspects of fire propagation, namely the flight of firebrands which cause spot fires.

[Images move through to show the firebrand moving up the wind tunnel, and then the image changes to show Andrew scratching through leaf matter on a metal tray]

These facilities allow us to understand very specific aspects of the mechanisms and processes involved in bushfires.

[Images move through to show Andrew and a colleague scratching around in the leaf matter, the leaf matter being lit up, and a close view of the burning leaf matter]

Such that we can get a better understanding of exactly how they would behave in the field.

[Music plays and singing birds can be heard, and images move through of a mountainous bush landscape, a close view of two kangaroos, a lizard crawling through the undergrowth, and smoke billowing into the air behind a gum tree]

Justin Leonard: So, we really need to drive down emissions to curb our warming climate.

[Image changes to show Andrew looking at the leaf matter]

That’s really the best way we can adapt.

[Images move through to show a male looking at bark on a tree trunk, three personnel inside the Bushfire Research Training Facility, and personnel watching the simulation burn outside from the training facility, and text appears: Find out more at]

In the meantime, our research and practical tools to help predict, fight and withstand bushfires are more important than ever before as Australia faces continued extreme fire weather events into the future.

[Music plays]



How can we better prepare Australia for future bushfires? Meet Justin Leonard and Andrew Sullivan, bushfire researchers from CSIRO. Both studying different aspects of bushfire events, their work helps improve house and fire truck design, firefighter safety, management and suppression during outbreaks and more. They are leading teams to develop practical strategies to keep Australians safe in the future.

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