Last summer, 1,507,895 ha of Victoria was burnt, much of it in the remote mountains of the Alps and East Gippsland. Almost every significant fire in Victoria during the 2019–20 season was as a result of lightning strike. 

Many of these started after storms moved across East Gippsland and the Alps on November 21 and December 31. Forest Fire Management crews swung into action and many of the fires were quickly put out. Aerial bombing dealt with others. In the 2019/20 fire season, state government FFMV crews suppressed 89% of all new ignitions with aggressive ‘first attack’ techniques. But there were simply too many lightning strikes, and some grew into massive blazes, including the fires that went on to devastate the forests and landscapes of East Gippsland in coming weeks.

It is clear that we need additional air capacity to get on top of these small fires before they become blazes. We also need more career remote area firefighters. Victoria should also follow the lead of NSW and TAS and establish a volunteer remote area firefighting force. In recent years, the NSW teams have able to keep 90% of the fires they attended contained to less than 10 hectares in size.

But fire seasons will continue to get longer and more intense because of climate change. We need all the help we can get to stop these lightning caused fires before they turn into blazes. This new development could deliver some useful help:

According to a report in The Canberra Times, a centre of excellence (the ANU-Optus Bushfire Research Centre of Excellence) will be established at the ANU in Canberra which will “roll out a network of infra-red heat-sensing cameras, autonomous water-carrying gliders and, within a few years, satellite systems to provide an early bushfire detection and suppression system”.

It is a partnership between ANU and telecommunications company Optus. It will use ‘multiple platforms to tackle the bushfire detection issue’, starting by working with the Rural Fire Service to mount long-range, heat-sensing cameras across the ACT’s four established fire towers in readiness for the coming season.

In announcing the CentreANU noted that:

‘Australia is experiencing unprecedented extreme fire conditions associated with prolonged drought, high temperatures and strong winds. This extreme weather creates catastrophic bushfire conditions that exceed known firefighting technologies – leading to significant ecological, economic, health and social costs’.

It is based on a plan to identify and then stop small fires before they turn into blazes:

A future ‘element to the program coming in 2022 is so-called “cube sats”, tiny satellites which would loop in polar orbits over areas of south-eastern Australia and take a couple of high-resolution images on each pass, providing regular aerial views of any bushfire outbreaks which need targeting and suppressing before they grow larger’.

‘The final and most effective tool in the detection network is a planned geostationary satellite which would sit over the continent and watch for outbreaks, using image resolution down to 100 metres.

The Optus-ANU collaboration is the starting point for a major national network of partners. The network will include the ACT RFS, billionaire Twiggy Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation and the ACT Parks and Conservation Service, with other organisations able to join.

Apart from spotting fires, the aim is to build remote capacity to put them out:

‘The ANU researchers will also tackle early bushfire suppression issue in a non-traditional way, characterised by Professor Rob Mahony’s low-cost, GPS-targeted gliders which, built at full scale, could each carry 500 litres of water and saturate specific targets, such as a tree ignited by a dry lightning strike.

“What we know is that many large bushfires start small and are triggered by dry lightning strikes in remote bushland, which is vary hard for fire crews to get into,” Dr Mahoney said. 

An engineer who specialises in aerial robotics, Prof Mahoney said the gliders could be built using dense cardboard and off-the-shelf avionic components at low cost – around $500 each – and launched from a high-flying cargo aircraft, decelerated and split open by a parachute to disperse and mist the water right over the burning target.

“We are aiming for a smart, low-cost solution which can be launched in difficult flying conditions, is GPS-targeted and has between a 45- to 60-second drop time before the parachute in the tail deploys,” he said.

“The deceleration from the chute then breaks open the nose cone carrying the water; we believe we could effectively target a six- to eight-square-metre radius around a single burning tree.”

ANU say: ‘The proposed goal is to detect a fire within one minute from ignition, and extinguish within five minutes’.
This revolutionary approach would:

  • DETECT and locate a fire within 60 seconds of ignition
  • COMMUNICATE the location to extinguishing agent
  • DEPLOY accurately targeted aerial vehicle
  • EXTINGUISH fire within five minutes of ignition

IMAGE: Marta Yebra, from the ANU site.