Reflections on international fire modelling | Natural Hazards Research Australia

Reflections on international fire modelling

Photo: Mika Peace
Release date

27 February 2023

As a fire researcher at the Bureau of Meteorology, I was invited to give a seminar at the 2022 Wildland Fire Safety Summit, which was held in conjunction with the International Conference on Forest Fire Research in Coimbra, Portugal. As project lead for the Translation of observed and modelled extreme bushfire behaviours to improve fire prediction and fireground safety project, Natural Hazards Research Australia supported my travel to Coimbra.  

The conference and summit are held every four years in Portugal, hosted by Domingos Viegas and his research team at the University of Coimbra, who are renowned for their fire laboratory where they conduct experimental fires. A tour of the facility was held prior to the conference dinner, with a fire whirl and a canyon fire ignited to much audience appreciation.

My presentation

The Wildland Fire Safety Summit had an audience of mostly Portuguese firefighters and practitioners, and the summit seminars were translated in real time by two translators who sat in a booth in the room. Most of the audience listened on headphones to the live translation – a new experience for me – the speed with which the translators worked was very impressive. I also gave a talk in the main conference for my colleague Dr Kevin Tory, who had submitted an abstract but was unable to attend. I chaired two sessions and was invited to join the panel at the closing session.

Networking opportunities

The conference was very well attended by Australian agencies and American researchers, so it was fantastic to reconnect face-to-face post-COVID travel restrictions with international colleagues and meet some hitherto virtual acquaintances, as well as develop new European connections. Coimbra is a delightful city to conference and network, as its cobbled streets favour walking to explore the small restaurants, bars and bakery treats, and the culture of the conference is for groups to mingle and dine on the delicious local food. Coimbra University is the oldest in Europe, dating to the 12th Century, with astoundingly beautiful historical buildings and a lively student culture.

My sector observations

Funding for fire research internationally is high. European and American colleagues said they have never been in such a good funding position; however, concerns were raised in conversation regarding the effectiveness of spending and (limited) strategy underpinning activities. Peter Moore (Fire management consultant, Natural Resources Fire & Carbon, Sydney) observed in his keynote, “The fire sector is slow and has ineffective policy influence”.

European (academic) research seems to have a weaker connection to operational application compared to Australia. This may reflect the advantage of a comparatively small sector in Australia and the success of multidisciplinary science collaborations that have stemmed from networking events through two CRCs.

In the conference presentations there was little (or no) emphasis on climate drivers. This absent theme is a marked difference from the Australian research activities into the broadscale seasonal and longer-term patterns influencing our fire seasons. 

Fire modelling capabilities in the United States are much more diverse than Australian tools - described as having 'different models for different needs'. There is no US equivalent to ACCESS-Fire as a tool that can be used to explore the atmospheric processes above a landscape-size fire through the troposphere, (no other models seem to be similarly used to explore deep moist convection and boundary layer wind modifications).

Future challenges

Software and systems architecture featured heavily in talks and effective integration of the capabilities of fire organisations and external technological solutions is likely to be a challenge in Australia into the future. In the US, the university sector and private companies are heavily involved in real time fire intelligence. Tech companies (including Google and others from the US, particularly California) are moving fast in the fire sector and making major investments to software capability and real time data streams. Private industries are outpacing government agencies with research and software developments. If trends in Australia follow the US, there are likely to be increasing numbers of private players in the fire sector in future and a strategy to engage effectively may be beneficial. 

Operational opportunities – my perspectives

Europe is lagging behind Australia in operational real time fire weather intelligence and prediction. European colleagues were very interested in our operational fire paradigm and our meteorologist and fire behaviour interpretation capabilities. There is an opportunity to present on this at the next conference (including decision support meteorologists, plume development, aerological diagram interpretation). This overlaps with the opportunity for an international operational exchange with Portugal (and potentially other European countries including France), which would support the rapidly emerging need in Europe for translation of science to practitioners, including use of seasonal outlooks. Our Australian expertise in applying recent research to real time operational fire and meteorological prediction has immense potential to benefit European emergency response during inevitable future events.

Research activities to focus on

A benefit of attending the conference was to develop a current perspective on the challenges and strengths of the international sector and ascertain the optimal contribution and investment in research projects over the next few years for our High Impact Weather Research team at the Bureau.

Adam Watts (Research biologist, US Forest Service) spoke during his keynote about 'Future needs are fire science in the 'z' axis'. The High Impact Weather Research team are uniquely placed to make a valuable contribution to developing tools that capture the influence of boundary layer and fire plume processes. This builds on our work in ember transport, pyrocumulonimbus prediction, ACCESS-Fire simulations and extreme fire case studies.

Other research and collaboration opportunities:

  1. collaboration on tools with operational application to activities with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts and Copernicus team
  2. holding an 'International Fire Weather Intelligence Workshop' to report strategic future directions for real time information
  3. collaboration on elevated winds and underpredicted rate-of-spread using ACCESS-Fire to conduct low level jet experiments
  4. exploring scaling of the dynamics of combustion and the role of atmospheric drivers and ventilation on deep flaming zones. 

Future conferences

There are numerous benefits in the Australian fire sector participating at the Portugal conference, particularly as Europe is faced with the challenges of responding to more frequent and intense fires with extreme fire behaviour. The international fire science research community is vibrant and genial. The conference was immensely enjoyable and it was energising to reconnect in person with friends and colleagues.