Fire managers face trade-offs with planned burns
At any given time of the year, parts of Australia are prone to bushfires.
Prescribed burns (also called fuel reduction or hazard reduction burns) are one of the tools that land-use managers use to manage (where possible) bushfire risk. By planning and carefully lighting fires in a predetermined area, prescribed burning reduces understorey fuel loads which, when dry, can lead to the rapid intensification of a bushfire.
Planning a program of prescribed burning involves extensive risk management, which includes considering factors such as weather conditions and fuel moisture.
Additionally, prescribed burning generates smoke that reduces air quality. Exposure to smoke and particles from vegetation fires can trigger asthma and other respiratory problems, posing a health risk for vulnerable members of an exposed community.
Land-use managers therefore need to be able to factor in the health risk of smoke exposure when implementing a program of prescribed burning.
Supporting prescribed burn management through smoke forecasting
We have worked with Victoria's Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), and the university sector to develop a tool that provides guidance to land-use managers on how to minimise population exposure to smoke generated by fuel reduction burns.
AQFx (the air quality forecasting system) provides six-day ensemble fire weather forecasts, 24–60 hour detailed air pollution forecasts, and next-day prescribed burn smoke forecasts for Victoria (and more recently), for NSW.
AQFx is run operationally by BOM and uses a fire spread model to calculate smoke emissions from ongoing fires and planned burns (wind-blown dust and urban sources of pollution are also included in AQFx). The transport of smoke by the wind is forecast using the meteorology from BoM's ACCESS weather forecasting system.
Expanding beyond borders and prescribed burns
Our research has led to the adoption of AQFx by land-use agencies in Victoria and NSW to aid in smoke management from prescribed burning.
AQFx is now also being used to forecast smoke exposure from bushfires, with this information being made available to the emergency management centres and the state environment projection authorities. We are now planning to support a national rollout of AQFx in order to ensure that advanced warnings of exposure to smoke from vegetation fires are available for all of Australia.
We are also collaborating on a school-based 'citizen science' program in Victoria to help fire managers broaden the smoke monitoring network. In 2017, we developed a curriculum and low-cost smoke sensor package for Grade 6-8 students called ‘SMOG’ (Smoke Observation Gadget), which has been deployed in Anglesea and Boolarra Primary Schools.