Last week in Science by Email we looked at the heatwave that has affected much of Australia. In this country, where heatwaves go, bushfires often follow.
A bushfire is an uncontrolled fire that burns in bushland, scrub or grasslands. They are a familiar hazard to Australians, as many parts of the continent are affected by them. While different regions have different bushfire seasons, at any one time of the year they can occur somewhere in the country.
Most bushfires occur in isolated areas or areas with few people. However, many Australians, even some in capital cities, live in bushfire-prone locations. Bushfires have caused the loss of life and property in a number of locations, with the worst fires recorded in Australia being the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009.
Fires are currently burning in many places across Australia. In particular, fires at Dunalley (TAS) and Coonabarabran (NSW) this month caused large property losses and received wide-spread attention. The Coonabarabran fire also threatened the Siding Spring Observatory, home to Australia’s largest optical telescope.
The threat to life and the millions of dollars worth of damage caused by bushfires makes them an important topic of research. Developed by CSIRO, Emergency Situation Awareness (ESA) software scans Twitter for evidence that an emergency situation may be developing. The authorities can combine that information with what they know from other sources like 000 calls. For example, ESA detected reports of a grass fire threatening a hospital in outback Queensland and emergency services used the information to respond more quickly. ESA demonstrates the growing role that social media plays in how people communicate and find information, but it is no substitute for calling 000 in an emergency!
ESA is only one part of bushfire research. Using the Canberra bushfires of 2003, local researchers were able to show the existence of ‘fire tornadoes’. These are a devastating phenomenon where a tornado forms as part of a thunderstorm and includes flames from a bushfire. CSIRO also does a range of bushfire-related research. Projects range from designing bushfire-resistant houses to conducting fire experiments in different conditions. Some researchers carry out surveys after major fires, while others still are developing models and tools to predict bushfire spread.
Fire is a natural part of the Australian landscape. There are a number of native plant species that require fire to germinate and the Australian bush generally grows back strongly after fire from both seeds and resprouting of burnt vegetation. Indigenous Australians have used fire successfully as part of their land management for thousands of years.
The hazards of out of control bushfires are likely to remain part of Australian life, though science and technology can help us take control of our environment.
NSW Rural Fire Service: Resources for teachers and students
Houses burned but telescopes ok: bushfire at major observatory
CSIRO: Detecting emergencies using social media
Turn and burn: the strange world of fire tornadoes
CSIRO: Bushfire research
Being a firefighter
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