Environment & energy, Government and governance, Science and technology | Australia, Asia

30 January 2020

Given the destruction caused by this summer’s fire season, it is high time the government invested in the technology it needs to fight the bushfire threat, Bruce Forster writes.

This summer, many ideas have been put forward as potential solutions for reducing the devastating impact of bushfires, particularly hazard reduction burning. However, little has been said about bushfire detection.

More on this: Podcast: Managing bushfires

Most fires start as a small, manageable blaze with a point source, often caused by lightning, downed power lines, arson, or simple carelessness.

Particularly in isolated areas, these fires may spread quickly before they are detected, and create a larger fire front that cannot easily be accessed or controlled.

Satellite and airborne remote sensing systems can easily detect a heat spot using short wave infrared sensing systems, from two to three micrometres in wavelength, and thermal infrared of around 10 micrometres in wavelength, to give comparative background temperatures.

Digital images of 10 to 20-metre spatial resolution, transmitted directly to a fire management centre, would be adequate to detect and locate a small fire. Once located, water-bombing aircraft and helicopters could then be directed to the fire site and hopefully have the fire stopped before it is able to expand.

More on this: Defending Australia from future catastrophe

Obviously, in these cases, time is of the essence. The return period of satellite systems, one such detection method, are normally too long to facilitate a quick reaction, as a response window of fewer than two hours, depending on wind conditions, would probably be needed to control the fire immediately.

However, new techniques, including cluster satellites and formation flying, may resolve this time problem – perhaps an issue for the new Australian Space Agency to consider.

Another better platform detecting fires could be an unmanned aircraft system, programmed to fly contiguous strips over forest areas considered at high risk, communicating with a fire management station in the process.

Investment in greater technology to spot and fight fires can be the action governments need to protect families, save infrastructure, and nurture the Australian environment. One crucial example of this would be high utility firefighting aircraft.

The Northrop Grumman Triton is an example of such technology. It is an unmanned aircraft system that can remain aloft for more than 30 hours, travelling at up to 600 kilometres per hour. It is understood that the Federal government has confirmed the purchase of a second Triton as part of a planned fleet of six Triton MQ-4C that it intends to have in place by 2025.

At least one of these systems should be refitted for fire detection and be available over the whole of the six month period from October to March. Along with this, additional sky crane water-bombing helicopters or large water-bombing aircraft should also be purchased or leased by the state and/or federal governments to quickly reach and douse detected fires.

It would cost approximately $350 million to purchase 10 such helicopters, or they could be leased more cheaply at $15 million for 12 weeks. This may seem costly, but it seems that the value of Australian assets, both built and natural, that could be saved by this approach would far outweigh the costs the government could be forced to bear in order to protect them. As the old saying goes, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.

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