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The challenge

Bushfire frequency is set to increase

[Music plays and text appears: Urban Bushfire Research]

[Image of a bushfire appears on screen with the text: October, 2013 Bushfires engulfed many communities across New South Wales]

[Image changes to show a water helicopter collecting water. Text appears: CSIRO is working with the NSW Rural Fire Service to assess its impact, and help communities plan for the future]

[Image changes to show fire men fighting fires and reading maps] Justin Leonard: I’m Justin Leonard. I’m a Research Leader for Bushfire Urban Design. That’s a small team that works under the Climate Adaptation Flagship. So we collect most of our data by going in after a bushfire event and surveying the damage, and we relate that to laboratory experiments, both small and large scale, to understand what’s really unravelling in the urban environment when a bushfire attacks.

[Image changes to show different shots of property affected by fire and then to Justin Leonard, Research Scientist – CSIRO. Text appears in the top right hand of the screen: Winmalee, NSW]

So up here at this fire is our first opportunity where we’ve actually worked with the RFS to develop a post bushfire survey app. The app works on a tablet, and we collect all of the relevant spatial data about buildings, their surroundings, and the intensity of the fire, and the nature of the loss.

So we have two slightly different apps. One is called a Rapid Impact Assessor, and that allows the RFS and us to go out and very quickly ascertain the extent of the damage, where we can quickly profile where the lost damaged and untouched houses are in a given fire scale.

[Image changes to show an aerial shot of land and houses marked with green dots on the screen of a handheld device. Text appears: Risk Impact Assessor App]

[Image changes to show an aerial shot of land and houses marked with red dots on the screen of a handheld device. Text appears: Bushfire House Surveyor App]

The second app that we use, and we’d use after the Rapid Impact Assessor, is a house surveying tool that we use to capture all the fine detail around the house, the house’s design, and the surrounding landscape, and load that all into a geo database that we can interrogate. We also use the app to collect videos and photos to log the nature of the impact and loss.

[Image changes to show Daniel Gibson]

Daniel Gibson: My name is Daniel Gibson. I’m with the Rural Fire Service. I’m here in Winmalee using the CSIRO app. The benefits of using the Building Impact Analysis app and other apps developed by the CSIRO, that it enables us to do our jobs more efficiently.

[Image changes to show someone with a handheld device working on the app]

Justin Leonard: So we’re already collecting a lot of very interesting data using the app, and it’s really acknowledging the particular mechanisms that are at play in this bushfire, its direct ember attack on the houses, direct ember attack on all the features around it, and also a strong prevalence for house to house ignition, from one house from its neighbour.

[Image changes to show different shots of property affected by fire]

So climate change research within CSIRO is showing us that we’re going to see an increase in the frequency of fire weather events that drive fires like this through the landscape, so we’re expecting a significant increase in the number of bushfire events that are going to cause life and house loss, so some of our research is going to contribute to improved community education initiatives about how to behave in bushfire, better protocols and thresholds for triggering evacuations and warnings, and in the longer term to focus on improved building controls and planning policies.

[Image has changed to show Justin and Daniel assessing property damage caused by fire and then to Daniel]

Daniel Gibson: Working with the CSIRO helps us to analyse the impact of fires on communities and the buildings, and it helps us to improve community safety in the future, particularly where people are living in bushfire prone areas.

[Credits: Film by Chris Johnson. Field Producer Chris McKay. Special Thanks to New South Wales Rural Fire Service, Justin Leonard, Daniel Gibson, Roger Nicoll. Music Stock Images, Shutterstock]

[Music plays, CSIRO logo with the text: Big ideas start here]

Justin Leonard explains the use of our urban bushfire apps.

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Bushfires are an integral part of Australia's environment and are influenced by many factors including warmer and drier conditions, extreme heat, strong winds and low humidity, housing design and materials, fuel loads and management.

Improved technology for post-bushfire surveillance is crucial, as bushfires are likely to increase in frequency as a result of climate change. Surveillance technology may help to mitigate the devastating impact of bushfires on communities by enabling better planning and preparation.

Most of the data used in research about the impacts of bushfires on urban infrastructure is collected by going in after a bushfire event and surveying the damage. This data can be analysed alongside information collected from laboratory experiments to better understand what's happening in the urban environment when a bushfire attacks.

Our response

New apps for critical bushfire assessment

We developed two apps that can be used by fire services in the aftermath of a bushfire to critically assess the impacts on urban infrastructure:

A screenshot of the Bushfire House Surveyor app.

  • The first app is the Rapid Impact Assessor. It enables assessment teams to enter a bushfire zone and quickly gauge the extent to which properties have been either untouched, damaged or completely destroyed. The app works in real time, so multiple teams can use it simultaneously.
  • The second app is Bushfire House Surveyor. It captures the finer detail around a house, such as its design and the surrounding landscape. This includes polygons, polylines and point features. The information is loaded into a geodatabase and analysed for further research into fire management and prevention of house losses.

These apps provide a significant advantage over the traditional methods of assessment.

Data collected by assessment teams is updated in the apps in real time and overlaid onto maps. This allows teams to see what data has already been collected, reducing duplication in the surveys and making assessments much more efficient.

The app is also used to collect videos and photos to log the nature and impact of the bushfire for further research.

The results

Real time results for fire services

The apps were first trialled by the NSW Rural Fire Service in the Blue Mountains towns of Winmalee, Lithgow and Mount Victoria. These towns were among those severely affected by the NSW bushfires of 2013.

We worked with NSW Rural Fire Service to trial two critical bushfire assessment apps.

The trial resulted in increased efficiencies for the NSW Rural Fire Service in conducting their building impact assessments.

The type of information gathered enables an accurate analysis of the impact of fires on the communities and buildings affected and this will help to improve community safety in the future - particularly where people are living in bushfire-prone areas.

CSIRO has a long history of collaborating with fire services, such as NSW Rural Fire Service, to share information about the loss of houses in bushfires. Our partnership with NSW Rural Fire Service has led to us both being considered key contributors to the reform of building and planning regulations in NSW.

The apps have also been tested by other agencies, which creates the potential for unified data collection process across multiple agencies, making the sharing of critical information easier.

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