Predicting bushfire danger from space

As Australia swelters through another hot summer with several large fires affecting different parts of the country, a team of researchers is busily creating the first national-scale, live fuel moisture content and flammability monitoring system. The new satellite-based technology is a potential game changer through the delivery of more efficient and effective bushfire preparedness and management across Australia.

Fire has always been an important driver of Australian ecosystems, but there is increasing concern about present and future fire management, especially the impacts of uncontrolled fires on people and property, and on environmental assets.

"Bushfires have been part of Australian landscapes for a long time, but with climate change the fires are getting more severe and frequent," says Dr Marta Yebra of the Australian National University’s Centre for Water and Landscape Dynamics.

To help address this threat and predict and mitigate the impacts of bushfire, Marta is developing a new satellite monitoring system. Marta and her colleagues are creating a model that uses satellite data combined with field-based measurements to calculate the moisture content of Australia’s grasslands, shrublands and forests.

“If we know how dry a fire’s potential fuel source is we can estimate how likely it is that the fuel will be ignited and how rapidly the fire will grow,” says Marta.

Dr Marta Yebra is developing a new satellite monitoring system to help predict and mitigate the impacts of bushfire (photo courtesy of Carolina Luiz)

Tailor-made model for the Australian environment

The fuel moisture model uses satellite data on vegetation reflectance, land cover and burnt area measured by NASA’s MODIS satellite instrument and made available to Australian researchers like Marta by TERN and its sister NCRIS project the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI).

"Similar fuel moisture models exist in Europe but we’re creating a more accurate satellite model specifically for the Australian landscape by incorporating the unique properties of eucalypt forests that occur across much of the country."

“For example, knowledge of the relationship between leaf properties and the reflection of sunlight in different parts of the spectrum is critical, and we improve and validate the assumptions we make about that by biochemical and spectral analyses of eucalypt leaves from our experimental forests in the National Arboretum in Canberra.”

Dr Marta Yebra collects eucalypt leaves from the National Arboretum in Canberra for biochemical and spectral analyses that validate satellite data on vegetation reflectance used in fuel moisture modelling (photo courtesy of Eva Van Gorsel)

Improving the efficiency of bushfire operations

Through the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, the team is working closely with planners, land managers and emergency services to better understand their procedures and information needs, and incorporate their new modelling and mapping methods to help them prepare and respond to bushfires.

Adam Leavesley, of the ACT Parks and Conservation Service, is an early user of the new technology and is impressed by the possibilities it offers.

“This new technology has enormous potential to improve the efficiency of bushfire operations across Australia and drive an expansion of our capability,” says Adam.

“The provision of accurate, spatially explicit, near real-time estimates of fuel moisture content and flammability at a range of spatial resolutions would permit more accurate targeting of scarce bushfire fighting resources in time and space.

“It would no longer be necessary to estimate jurisdiction-wide readiness based on anecdotal extrapolation of conditions at a few locations.”

Marta is also producing a leaf water content product for ecologists that uses a similar approach to the flammability monitoring system but is tailored to environmental applications. The data will be publicly available via the TERN Data Discovery Portal. So be sure to keep an eye out in future editions of the TERN eNewsletter for updates.

  • Development of the Australian Flammability Monitoring System by Marta and team is funded by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. Find out more here.

  • This research utilises the open access satellite data products, tools and services delivered by TERN’s Landscape Assessment capability. Explore the suite of TERN’s landscape-scale remote sensing products and tools here.

  • The research presented here is just one example of how TERN’s diverse research infrastructure is being used by our nationally networked science and management partners to increase our understanding and improve our management of fire in the landscape. Visit the TERN website to read more about TERN facilitated projects and activities relevant to fire.

Adam Leavesley of ACT Parks & Conservation and Dr Marta Yebra plan a hazard reduction burn near Googong Dam in the ACT (photo courtesy of Geoff Cary, ANU)

First published in TERN newsletter January 2018

Content on this page, except images, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Licence

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